Local comics dream of performing in front of Washington’s largest audiences. But the Warner Theatre, which this year featured sold-out shows by Lewis Black and Jim Gaffigan, and the Kennedy Center, which will bring comedian Louis C.K. to the District in February, remain the turf of nationally known funnymen.
The local comedy scene takes place before sparse crowds at low-ceilinged clubs with little more than a brick wall and a spotlight . . . but a lot of hope.
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.
In May, Ruskowski’s parents attended her graduation and watched her perform at a comedy club in Aberdeen, Md. Two hours later, her 55-year-old mother died in her sleep.
Comedy, Ruskowski says, offered solace. “When I was onstage, I could concentrate, I could focus and not be so sad. . . . It’s provided me great comfort and healing during the most painful time of my life, and I didn’t expect that.”
The giggles frequently begin before 20-year-old Brandon Wardell has uttered his first joke. It’s the bowl-cut hair. The chubby cheeks. The fanny pack.
Audiences laugh, he says, “at the idea of me.”
In the local comedy scene, everyone knows Wardell. At 17, the comedy-obsessed Robinson Secondary School junior and a friend told their parents they were going to a school play. Instead they drove to Comedy Spot in Ballston. “I had, like, a joke,” Wardell recalls. “I was fumbling with a piece of paper, and I kept asking how much time I had.”
The audience lost it. “People thought it was a bit,” he says, still mildly incredulous. “They thought I was doing, like, [Andy] Kaufman.” He milked the routine (or, more accurately, the lack of one) for six months.
A good way to understand his humor is to read his tweets, bizarre, stream-of-consciousness one-liners about pop music, sex and low self-esteem that he dispatches for an audience of about 1,200 followers. “I saw 10 minutes of Skrillex at a festival out of curiosity, and trying to escape that sea of Rude Dubstep Teens was my Vietnam,” reads one from last month.
His age and his knack for riffing about pop culture — rap is a favorite topic — have won the young comic buzz as well as gigs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin and the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Ore. But friends say Wardell has the talent to be more than just the youngest kid onstage. Wardell, says comedian Hillary Buckholtz, “really is going to grow into a full-steam-ahead comedian. He’s comedy, through and through. His willingness to get up, and get up, and get up is going to take him there.”
the comic’s comic
As the son of two Southern ministers, Tim Miller thinks he was meant for a pulpit. Just not the one his parents imagined.
A stint in the Army took Miller out of his native Waco, Tex., and eventually landed him a job as a videographer in the White House, where he worked from the Clinton years through the early part of the Obama administration. He now works for another government agency, but he credits those years with giving him the skills to work a room.
In the White House, Miller says, “even if you’re not in politics, you have to be diplomatic. . . . I’m always walking a line, you know. I’m going to have to say it this way to get the laugh that I want.”
It’s something Miller is acutely aware of, particularly when he’s joking about race.
“If you can explain to [audiences], ‘Guys, it’s okay to laugh at this,’ they will, even on a taboo topic,” says Andy Kline, who records a twice-weekly podcast, “Three Guys On,” with Miller. “Tim can get them to feel that, without actually saying, ‘Guys, it’s all right. We can laugh about this.’ He’s just got so much confidence.”
At 34, Miller is the oldest of the four comics profiled here and is realistic about the praise. He is not yet, he says, the big name that lures audiences. “If you don’t have that thing that propels you into a big seller” — that thing meaning a reality show, Web series or other means of self-promotion that comics use, he says — “you can’t go too far.” He is a comic’s comic.
“I don’t care about the laughs,” he says, only half-joking. “I care about keeping the attention of the people listening to me talk. It’s therapy for me.”
“Mr. Melbrough,” as his students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts know him, is the 20-something teacher we all had whose other life began as soon as the bell rang. After class, Reggie Melbrough’s life revolves, night after night, around pursuing his dream of being a stand-up comic.
It was the death of his grandmother, who raised him, that sent Melbrough to his first open mike at the Topaz Hotel in Dupont Circle. The other, more experienced comics forced him to step up his game. “If you are around the better comics, the better you have to be if you want to get stage time,” he says.
With his 30th birthday looming, Melbrough recognizes the pressure to “make it.” Performances at Speakeasy DC and a hosting gig with Story League, both local story-telling events, have helped him recognize his strength as a comic. “I don’t have a lot of those quick-hitting jokes,” he says. “I don’t have setup-punch line, setup-punch line.” Instead, he weaves longer tales about running into students while off duty, dating in the District and his youth in Idaho, where he was one of a handful of African Americans in his community.
“Teaching is great. When I see my kids graduate, that’s sweet,” he says. “But nothing beats getting off that stage and having someone say, ‘I really like that joke.’ ”