Washington’s comedians are taking a do-it-yourself approach

September 12, 2013

It’s still hours before dusk at Shaw’s Tavern, a light-filled bar on Florida Avenue, but Wake & Bacon, a curious daytime comedy show, has the crowd cutting up like it’s Saturday night.

“How are we this drunk this early?” asks David Tveite, a 25-year-old comedian with the mop-top haircut and mischievous grin of a 12-year-old boy. Another wave of weepy, table-smacking laughter rises from audience members, who, between bites of biscuits and macaroni and cheese, are definitely nursing more than coffee.

Just as Washington foodies are feasting on a boom time for wood-grilled hen and tonkotsu ramen, and music fans fist-pump in increasingly glitzy venues, the city’s comedy fans are — over brunch and happy hour and in rooms usually reserved for touring bands — providing the laugh track for a scene that has exploded in the past year. Behind the change are the comedians themselves.

Apart from the D.C. Improv and the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, which largely book national performers, the Washington comedy-verse has long revolved around the open-mike night. In low-ceilinged rooms in hotels such as the Topaz in Dupont Circle, or on off nights at watering holes such as Chinatown sports bar RFD, the District’s would-be comics will all eventually fumble their way through an awkward ­five-minute set. They will tell jokes about ­ex-girlfriends and clingy cats and the mishaps of eating ballpark hot dogs to crowds that will — depending on the day of the week, the price of the beer or their tolerance for Internet-porn humor — respond with anything from appreciative smirks to stone-faced silence. And those are the good nights.

That’s the funny thing: Sit through one of these ubiquitous open mikes, and you might come away thinking D.C. comedy is depressing.

“Open mikes are not designed for audiences to like,” says Rich Bennett, 34, who last year formed the comedy collective LYGO (Laugh Your Grits Off) and began hosting shows that were more selective. “They’re designed for comedy heads and maybe for a booker who’s looking to see who’s killing it in there.”

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities between the open-mike and the Improv, LYGO and others have begun creating tightly themed stand-up events such as Wake & Bacon, along with weeknight shows at U Street’s coarse dive bar Codmother and the nearby burger joint Desperados. Admission at the shows can range from $3 to $15, and some, like LYGO, use Groupon or Living Social deals and happy-hour specials to draw crowds. Bolstering this do-it-yourself laugh factory is the city’s growing population of budget-conscious young professionals and the venues eager to win their business.

“Comedy clubs are marketed towards people who have disposable income,” says Tveite, who hosts his own show under the LYGO banner with fellow comic Matty Litwack, 22. “People have to get a baby-sitter, and it’s a whole process. We’re putting on something that’s affordable and it’s where people are when they’re looking for something to do on a Tuesday night.”

The Black Cat, the 14th Street club best known as a music venue, was looking for that crowd when it offered up a Friday night to local comics last month to fill the summertime void. Girlfriends, couples and solo fliers settled, with some bewilderment, into a few dozen folding chairs in a club whose capacity is usually 700 to see comics such as Sara Armour, a chatterbox who’s one of the scene’s brightest stars. In her glittered flats, braces and a hint of eyeliner, she manages to elicit some of the biggest laughs on a recent night by being, simply, just like them — that Washington mix of brilliant and insurmountably nerdy.

“I’m single for the first time in six years,” she says, confessing that the breakup was, in its own way, like women’s lib for her personal grooming — and personal habits. “I ate a waffle in the shower the other day!” she hollers. “I don’t give a f---.”

Backstage, the 27-year-old Armour, who has hosted at the Improv and booked out-of-town dates, credits the vibrant scene that has afforded so much stage time in her two years performing stand-up. “I feel so grateful and supported,” she says. “I feel like here, I have the opportunity to really stretch out. When there weren’t shows to go to . . . so many of the young comics took it upon themselves to create rooms of their own.”

In the past few months, it has become possible to find a comic-produced show almost every night of the week. The Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse has cultivated an immensely popular side room for local comics. And in Columbia Heights, the perpetually mobbed dive Wonderland Ballroom is quietly becoming the anti-Improv to 20-something comedy fans.

“Every bar has some kind of trivia night, or live music, or DJs, but we saw an untapped market,” says Greg Pernisi, Wonderland’s manager, explaining why the club turns over its second level several times a month to comedy nights such as the variety show “Church Night,” the late-night talk show/podcast “You, Me, Them, Everybody” and the straight-ahead comedy of “Don’t Block the Box.”

“Besides that these nights are doing well for us and we’re putting up good numbers,” Pernisi says, “we really respect what these kids are doing.” The shows, he says, bring in “a chilled-out clientele. They’re not there to get drunk and rowdy and jump around. They’re in there to giggle and have fun and laugh at these guys and have some beers.”

And they’re probably comedy fans. In the District and beyond, the fan base for comedy is blossoming. Festivals — including Washington’s recently reprised Bentzen Ball, Austin-based Moontower Comedy Festival and Oddity Fest, and this summer’s touring Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, headlined, controversially, by Dave Chappelle — are springing up with fanfare usually reserved for music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.

When Tyler Richardson, 30, started seven years ago, there were few “rooms” — in the insular comedy world, the term for comedy venues — and few comics who could bend the ear of producers to land even the standard five-minute slot. “The people running the rooms,” Richardson says, “were like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you start a mike.’

“And so everyone went out and started a mike,” says the comic, who, for five years has run his own showcase, $5 Comedy, out of the State Theatre in Falls Church. Thanks to new opportunities, Richardson says, “it’s not unusual to perform three times in one night, which was almost unheard of if you were in D.C. five to seven years ago.”

The more shows the comics have a chance to do, the comics say, the funnier they can become. And the better it is for the District’s reputation in the comedy world.

“One feeds the other,” says Christian Hunt, who started a comedy-heavy variety show, the Capital City Showcase, once a month at the D.C. Arts Center in Adams Morgan. “If you’ve got only one, maybe two places to play, there are only so many opportunities to get better. That’s what has been missing.”

Comedian Aparna Nancherla, who left the District in 2010 for Los Angeles and now works as a writer in New York, recalls a “decent” number of places to perform, including the Topaz, which offers a more selective open-mike night. When she returns now for a stand-up gig, she says, she finds that “the scene is a lot more of a community than when I left. It was supportive before, but now it feels like a cohesive scene.”

Groups such as LYGO and Underground Comedy, which hosts shows at the Big Hunt in Dupont Circle, tap into a pool of area comics that Bennett estimates at 200 men and women — enough to keep the new shows coming, and, he hints, to eventually organize his own local comedy festival. (The Bentzen Ball, which will bring in national comics, will run Oct. 10-13.)

The comedians who subject themselves to what can feel like a nightly hazing say they know it’s unlikely that agents or talent scouts will ever find their way to the makeshift stages of Shaw’s Tavern or the Wonderland Ballroom. But the recent successes of those who have left the area to pursue comedy have given them new hope that toiling in Washington’s scene can pay dividends.

Affable Los Angeles comic Rory Scovel, who made his second “Conan” appearance this month, spent three years telling jokes on D.C. open-mike nights. Nancherla, a native Virginian whose expressive face is among her funniest assets, landed a gig as a writer for the FX chatfest “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” Seaton Smith, with his rapid-fire style and stylish good looks, landed a leading role this spring in “Mulaney,” a pilot for NBC that may yet make it to the small screen. And, then, of course, there are the valedictorians, including Chappelle, Patton Oswalt and Wanda Sykes — all long-ago graduates of the Washington comedy scene.

Last month at the Black Cat, a half-dozen local comics were working out their pre-show jitters in a dim room before the show.

Tveite, a transplant from Seattle, was among them. In his previous city, he said, show organizers would enlist a dozen comics, including an awkward few who had just a few months under their belts.

“People would think, ‘Oh, that’s what comedy is here.’ And they didn’t come back,” he says. But the crowds in Washington, he says, are becoming regulars. “The fact that people are curating shows here and putting a lot of effort into them makes a huge difference. The comedy scene is at a critical mass right now.”

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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