The basement of the Big Hunt in Dupont Circle is a steam room, so sealed off from ventilation that a few too many bodies causes condensation from the overhead pipes to drip onto people and into their beers.
So basically, it’s your typical stand-up comedy club: a low ceiling, a well-placed spotlight and Satan paraphernalia on every wall.
Tonight, Sean Joyce is worried it won’t be conducive to laughter. One of the District’s most prolific producers of open mikes and small comedy shows, Joyce is looking at the ticket sales — he’s sold 57, more than he expected — and peering out at a crowd lining up for seats half an hour before the doors open. He’s already sweating, and once they’re in, it’s only going to get hotter.
And, oh, the headliner, coming from New York, is nowhere to be found.
Welcome to the life of a comedy promoter.
But here’s what is funny about most of Joyce’s nights: What he really wants is to be onstage.
Which is another reason to worry, because he’s opening the show.
“I’m not having a beer and thinking about what I’m going to say,” he says, slightly tense as he flips through fliers that he ran off at a copy shop earlier. “I’m doing everything else.”
In the D.C. comedysphere, the hottest topics are depression, dating apps, porn, white people and mild cases of urban 30-something malaise that should not be confused with depression.
Joyce could be the poster boy for the last. Thirty-five and given to wearing hip white sneakers, plaid shirts and hoodies, he’s a Washington sort of relatable. He tells jokes about his girlfriend demanding couples counseling (true, he says) and the ennui of the D.C. office worker, which he can speak to because he was one for three years, just long enough to know he’d had his fill. A former girlfriend encouraged him to try stand-up; he saw a show, he says, and waited another six months before he could work up the nerve to try it.
Last year, Joyce quit his job as a consultant at the World Bank to pursue comedy full time.
But before you can be a comedian in any town, you need a stage, and for a long time, it wasn’t easy to find a welcoming one in the District.
So, like a handful of other D.C. comics, Joyce started his own show. Underground Comedy, which he founded in 2013, now operates an open-mike or ticketed comedy show in a back room or basement of a Washington bar every night of the week.
To start a comedy show in Washington, you have to “find a space that has a good environment for performers, then convince the management that it’s a good thing, and then try to have comics that come out and fill the place out,” says Ahmed Vallejos, a comedian who hosts Joyce’s Tuesday night show on H Street NE.
This is what Joyce does, and it’s no wonder why few others want the job. He makes sure that the light is right, the mikes work, the folding chairs are unfolded and that the hosts he picks know how to coax energy from the room.
The shows are popular, and they’re a draw for stand-up comics, Vallejos says. They’ve helped to bolster a scene that was, just a few years ago, anemic. Running them, however, is not always so good for Joyce.
“There was a stretch of a few months,” Vallejos recalls, “where he just wasn’t performing.”
O n Mondays, Joyce wakes up around noon and, still in sweats, shuffles into the office of his Petworth group house to fill a spreadsheet with comedians who want to be in his shows.
Booking comics, even an open-mike, is not a democracy. Every week, he e-mails more than 80 comedians from the Washington area and Baltimore that he likes and ignores the requests of dozens of others; he tries to make each show diverse, with women, people of color, veteran comedians and first-timers.
And recently, finally, he’s begun to put himself up more.
A night later at Vendetta, a restaurant on H Street, he’s at the mike, boisterous. “I have only two questionable jokes left, and I’m going to do one of them,” he promises the crowd. “Because I’ve already done the slave one . . .”
Some local comedians stumble over controversial material. For the most part, Joyce steers clear of it.
“I definitely design my stand-up to be relatable, to do well,” he says.
Later, however, at Sudhouse, it’s not going well. It’s brutal. The stage isn’t a stage, there are 10 people in the crowd, and a car alarm is going off outside.
One can see why Joyce’s girlfriend — the one who coaxed him into counseling — no longer comes to his shows. “She thinks it’s boring now,” he says.
Afterward, Joyce slips behind the wheel of his silver Volkswagen Rabbit, which he often uses to drive comedians home to Columbia Heights or Petworth, slightly discouraged.
“D.C. is lacking culture,” he says on the drive from Sudhouse to Bier Baron, bars that on this particular night seem to bolster his case. For its size, he elaborates, the city doesn’t offer what New York, or even Baltimore, does in terms of its appreciation for music or the performing arts.
There are upsides to being a performer in Washington, of course. Comedians find the audiences smart and receptive. Joyce’s crowds are more than just comedians waiting for their turn and, unlike crowds in other cities, “they stay the whole show,” says Ryan Donahue, a comic who has come from New York to do some time in front of D.C. audiences.
But the District is different from New York or Los Angeles in other ways, too. There are no scouts in the audience, no one looking for the star of their next sitcom or a comedian to perform on “Conan.” So although everyone gets something out of their D.C. stage time, it’s the comedians who leave — like Rory Scovel and Aparna Nancherla, but most famously Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes — that make something of themselves. “People will say you don’t have to leave D.C.,” Vallejos says. “You do have to leave D.C. to make it.”
Joyce thinks that a few of the D.C. comedians he leans on to make his shows funnier should get out, too, though he worries what it would do to the mix. He won’t say whether leaving is in his own future.
By the time Joyce gets up at Bier Baron, it is after 10, and his joke about Gandhi lands with a thud. And then his joke about waking up in hell, usually a zinger, fizzles, too.
The crowd is a buzzkill. Or maybe it’s the comedians who have worn out their welcome. It’s hard to say. But Joyce escapes unheckled, which is surprising, because it’s that kind of audience.
A few years earlier, he says later, bombing would have sent him fleeing from the stage, even if his five minutes weren’t up. His skin is basically Teflon now. “I think it’s better to power through it,” he says.
Each show is a lesson — a lesson in performance, a lesson in the mysterious and highly combustible chemistry between audience and comic.
For now, he’s pragmatic about his own ability to land every punch line, offering only that he is an “okay joke writer, an okay performer.”
“If you’re a great comic, you can talk about anything,” he says.
And so he signs himself up for another night.