Issue June 30, 2010

Funny business

Louisville’s two successful comedy clubs tout a steady stream of celebrity comics and a thriving amateur stand-up scene

Right here on the banks of the Ohio, nestled at the crossroads of the South and the Midwest, is a Mecca of stand-up comedy.

That’s right — outside of New York, Los Angeles and maybe Boston, Louisville arguably has one of the most thriving stand-up scenes in America today, a transformation that’s been under way for decades.

Since this country’s golden age of stand-up blossomed in the 1980s, Louisville has managed to attract major talent while fostering its own crop of promising comics. After nearly three decades of cultivation at the hands of dedicated local comics, as well as a devoted fan base in search of laughs, Louisville’s diverse comedy scene now boasts two highly successful clubs: Comedy Caravan in the Highlands and The Improv downtown. Both popular in their own right, these clubs play separate but equal roles in a flourishing scene.

For years, the Caravan has been Louisville’s go-to for stand-up, offering a mix of nationally recognized headliners and a troupe of talented local comics. Given the club’s longevity — it’s been around 23 years — it’s a formula that works. During that time, a handful of other clubs have come and gone, but it seems the latest addition to the comedy scene — The Improv — will be around for the long haul.

Situated in the bustling Fourth Street Live corridor, this national chain is only in its second year of operation in Louisville, and already it has developed a good reputation among big stars on the national comedy circuit. Past performers include Tom Green, Dave Attell and Rob Schneider,
just to name a few.

“Something that I think a lot of comics don’t appreciate is how fortunate we are to have two clubs,” says local comedian Jamie Utley, who regularly performs in both venues. “I’ve learned so much from both clubs — I just learned different things.”

In addition to being home to two nationally renowned clubs, Louisville boasts a wildly popular open mic comedy scene, outshining many similarly sized cities when it comes to both quality and quantity. A major catalyst behind this unique stand-up phenomenon is the Louisville Comic Underground. Started four years ago at the Caravan as an occasional open mic opportunity for amateurs, the Underground has since become a staple of the local comedy scene, one that’s attracted national comics passing through town.

“I think (the Underground) is amazing,” says local comic Raanan Hershberg, adding that the open mic gig is unique because of the crowds it draws. “Literally, any fuckin’ douchebag in the city can just wake up one day and say, ‘I wanna do comedy,’ and they can go on stage, and sometimes in front of 100 people … that’s a beautiful thing.”

Louisville has had a knack for attracting quality comedic acts from the beginning.

When Shirley’s Comedy Club — the first full-time comedy club in Louisville — opened in the Mall St. Matthews in the summer of 1982, the headliner for their first show was a then-unknown comic named Jay Leno.

“That was the beginning of the comedy revolution, ya’ know?” says Phil Kelly, a local comedian who performed with Leno that night, essentially the first real stand-up show in Louisville. “They all got it started; I just happened to be one of the guys that was blessed enough to be on the gig.”

For their second week of operation, Shirley’s booked another unknown comic named Paul Reiser, who had just appeared in the film “Diner,” and who went on to become a network television fixture with “My Two Dads” in the ’80s and “Mad About You” in the ’90s. The club hosted a slew of up-and-coming acts that would eventually achieve full-on celebrity status, including Roseanne, Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright and Lenny Clarke.

Despite showing real promise, the club closed in 1984.

Three years elapsed before a new stand-up venture came along, this time with the launch of a club that’s remained a staple on the Louisville scene for 23 years — Comedy Caravan.

The Caravan opened in 1987 as Funny Farm on Bardstown Road in Mid-City Mall, where it remains today. The first show included the late George Miller — a recurring guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” — and the popular, over-the-top singing comic Heywood Banks. Capping off the night was one of the future “Original Kings of Comedy,” Steve Harvey.

“There was nothing upstairs,” Heywood Banks recalls of the debut show at Funny Farm. “It was like a warehouse … and they were still gluing the bricks to the back wall. But the place was packed, it was exciting, people knew something was happening here.”

Co-owners Tom Sobel and Jim Schliebner, owner of a popular Indianapolis comedy club at the time, knew the club’s debut needed to include some big names to generate publicity.

“We did that on purpose,” says Sobel. “We knew that George Miller’s girlfriend was the best publicist in the comedy industry, and we knew we were going to need her help getting media coverage for the opening. And she did a great job.”

The club’s popularity grew, and in 1989, Sobel and Schliebner opened a sister club called Legends, which operated at the Hurstbourne Hotel. For the first time, Louisvillians had two options for stand-up, that is until Legends unexpectedly closed in 1996 when the hotel came under new management.

Around this time, Sobel bought out Schliebner and slowly began converting the Funny Farm into what we now know as Comedy Caravan. For the next decade, the Caravan was the premier Louisville stop for rising national stars, as well as a place for budding local personalities to perform.

“When I was working at the Caravan as a seater, I’d never thought about going on stage,” says then-budding comic Dawn Gee, now a news anchor at WAVE-TV. “But customers and other employees began to talk about my quick wit, and how I eased down drunk customers, and they were like, ‘Can you do that on stage?’ I didn’t think about it, I just said, ‘Yes.”’

After her first open mic appearance, Gee was hooked, becoming a regular — a popular one at that.

“Comedy Caravan just has a wonderful, warm room,” says Gee. “I used to love performing there; it was a fantastic place to try new material. It’s always hard to do new jokes, so you want to try them in a room where you can get a decent response.”

After years of success, Sobel — who played an integral role in developing the city’s comedy scene — decided it was time to sell.

In 2008, along came an unlikely buyer.

Darrell Holladay had a background in manufacturing and zero experience in comedy. In search of a new business venture, Holladay says, “I expressed to my friend I was wanting to buy my own company, thinking it was going to be manufacturing. This guy also happened to be a friend of Tom Sobel’s and knew he was trying to sell the Caravan, and he asked if I’d be interested in buying it. I laughed at the idea and hung up the phone.”

But after some urging from his wife, Holladay reconsidered and set up a meeting. “If you know Tom, that meeting lasted about six hours, during which I didn’t have a whole lot to say … just listening. But finally, we decided we’d give it a try.”

Because Sobel had invested so much in the Caravan, he arranged for Holladay to first work at the club on a trial basis so see if this was the right move. “I think (Tom) wanted to make sure I didn’t have any surprises after the fact,” Holladay says.

When the six-month trial ended, Holladay was ready to buy, officially taking over as owner on Nov. 1, 2009. The new club owner says he has no plans to alter the winning formula of attracting touring comedians and showcasing up-and-coming local talent.

“There’s a lot of weekends that I’ll have two or three hundred years worth of comic experience in the club, and they’re not even performing. They just come in, have a drink, and hang out with old friends,” says Holladay. “The thing that I have, that comedians want, is stage time and feedback. A lot of clubs will have stage time, but they won’t offer any kind of feedback; and here, there’s all kinds of feedback.”

Even the competition acknowledges the Caravan has something special.

“Obviously the Comedy Caravan has been doing something right to be in business for over 20 years,” says Bob Cramer, general manager at The Improv. “When I came to town, we’d been open eight months, and people didn’t know we existed. I would say, ‘I work at a comedy club in Louisville,’ and people automatically assumed it was the Caravan.”

It had been four years since Rascal’s comedy club crashed and burned following an eight-month run at Fourth Street Live. By September 2008, the downtown entertainment district was ready to once again take a crack at comedy, this time by opening a storied franchise in the world of comedy.

“The Improv is a household name, it’s a brand that sells itself,” says Cramer. “We were just looking for the opportunity to do something new, in a new place.”

But unlike the Caravan, which for years has focused on young acts on the brink of greatness, The Improv immediately began booking comics that were already fixtures on network and cable television. In its first year, The Improv hosted such recognizable headliners as Lewis Black, Daniel Tosh and Louis C.K.

“The owners of this club spared no expense when they made it. They wanted one of the top clubs in the country and they built it,” Cramer says. “It’s not so much a matter of rolling the dice for us, because we can bring in the acts that we know people will come out and see.”

The club was opened by a four-man partnership led by two veteran club owners, Joel Backhoff, owner of the Miami Improv, and Brian Dorfman, owner of Zanie’s in Nashville. Originally the club was known as Stand-Up Live, and it operated under this name for the first few months until a franchise agreement was finalized.

The Improv name has proven successful in attracting prominent comics who had never before stopped in Louisville. It’s that brand loyalty that attracted Lewis Black of “The Daily Show” fame to play to a packed house in the fledgling, 300-seat club back in January 2009, a time when he was touring in massive theaters in much bigger cities.

There were certain club owners that were very good to me when I was coming up, so I try to return the favor now,” Black says of why he did The Improv show in Louisville. “It’s also a place where you can be more conversational and work on
new material.”

In addition to offering celebrity headliners, The Improv also attracts a celebrity clientele.

“I never know who’s going to walk through those doors,” says Cramer. “Not only did Lewis Black perform in this club last year, but when he performed at The Palace a few months ago, he stopped through, sat in the back, hung out, watched the show, and signed autographs. People come through even when they’re not in the show. Ron White was here during the Derby smoking cigars on the bridge.”

Despite an obvious focus on attracting famous comedians, Cramer insists local comics are the heart and soul of any club. Almost all of The Improv’s emcees and feature acts are local or regional, giving upstart comics an opportunity to share the stage with heavyweights.

In an effort to incorporate even more local talent, last year Cramer launched The Comedy Derby, a contest where local comedians could compete for a paid emcee slot on a major show in the club. “We wanted to have a contest with local comics, and a local theme, but it caught on so well, they’re doing this in our Florida clubs now, as well.”

When asked whether The Improv has detracted from the locally grown Comedy Caravan, Cramer is quick to point out there is no tension, and that many local comics play both clubs. In fact, he argues The Improv has elevated the entire Louisville comedy scene to a new level
of visibility.

“I watched an episode of ‘Chelsea Lately’ (recently), and on one episode, two of the three panelists happened to be playing Louisville in the next month,” says Cramer. “One was coming to The Improv, and one was playing the Caravan. In my opinion, that’s amazing for this town.”

Louisville’s comedy circuit has become a regular stop for national stand-up tours, but not at the expense of the city’s flourishing open mic scene, most notably the Louisville Comedy Underground.

Louisvillian Adam White started the Louisville Comedy Underground in 2006 as a less traditional outlet for comics to perform. Over the past four years, the open mic night — a draw for both amateurs and professionals — has become increasingly popular with audiences, these days resulting in three shows a week at Comedy Caravan.

“It’s just a fun show. A lot of people haven’t seen anything like this before; being in the room to feel the awkwardness and awesomeness at the same time,” White says. “I feel like this is the heart of the (comedy) community … it’s like a honeycomb hideout.”

A former punk-rock kid with a generally quiet disposition, White is a talented comic in his own right who studied at Second City in Chicago before returning to his roots and launching the unconventional open mic gig.

“If you go to an open mic in Chicago, L.A. or New York — almost all of the ones I’ve seen or heard about — there’s hardly anybody there,” White says of the difference between the Underground and other open mics. “We provide them with an audience.”

The Underground shows are a bargain — $5, with no drink minimums — where on any given night you can see amateurs trying to find a voice, national touring acts working on new material, and sometimes even the club’s headliner for the weekend will stick around to do 10 minutes, as celebrity comics Kristin Key, Steve Hoffstetter and T.J. Miller all did during recent appearances.

“It’s hard to watch a show you’re not actively a part of,” says Key, who was a finalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” in explaining why she gets on stage with the Underground when she’s
in Louisville.

That’s why White always makes room for professionals who want a few minutes on stage as part of the Underground.

“When professional comics are doing a gig, they have to be funny. They’re getting paid, they have to deliver,” White says. “In a show like this, (professional comics) can mess around and have a good time. They all remember how much fun that point in their career was … You’re never going to forget the times you were really, really struggling, and trying to figure things out, and when you really had those ‘a-ha’ moments.”

And while the occasional celebrity cameo certainly adds to the Underground’s charm, novice comics are the focal point of the show.

Frequent Underground participants study each other’s material and comedic nuances, resulting in an atmosphere of camaraderie. It’s a safe place where they can offer and receive honest feedback. Sometimes brutally honest. Comic Raanan Hershberg could recently be overheard “encouraging” another comedian: “You did really well tonight. I thought you were a hack. I was going to tell you to quit comedy. But tonight, you killed it, you were great, you’ve gotten so much better … keep going.”

A bit harsh, but appreciated nonetheless.

“The open mic is the most sacred thing in comedy,” Hershberg says. “Because it’s where everyone does new material, whether you’re an amateur just starting out or the most professional comic in the world. It levels the playing field, it’s raw, and you get all different points of view.”

It’s this eclectic mix of comedic talent — amateur and professional, raw and well rehearsed, good and sometimes bad — that Tom Sobel was striving to achieve with the Comedy Caravan.

“These young comics are so blessed to have experienced comedians that come in, hang out, and share with them and encourage them … that doesn’t happen everywhere,” says Sobel, who despite no longer owning the Caravan still books acts for the venue through his agency TSM Comics. “Our whole point is to create a community; a community of people that support one another, and are pulling for one another.”

Local comedian Bryan Schneider is a fixture at Underground shows, in addition to regularly hosting weekend performances at Comedy Caravan. “He’s a middle-of-the-pack comic locally,” Sobel says of Schneider, who recently won a stand-up competition in San Diego. “You have to ask, what’s it mean when a ‘middle-of-the-pack comic’ in Louisville can go to California and win a contest?”

In turn, Schneider credits Louisville’s comedy scene — specifically the Caravan and the Underground — for his success.

“This provides plenty of experience, and good stage time,” Schneider says. “And that really encourages a comic’s community, where people want to collaborate and get better together.”

And the importance of an audience cannot be overstated, especially for young comics. Comedy is different than other performing arts like music, where an artist can privately write songs and practice until they’re good enough for public consumption. On the contrary, comedians must go on stage and bomb in front of strangers to learn what’s not funny, so they can eventually figure out what is funny.

Without the willingness of comedy clubs — from Comedy Caravan to The Improv — to offer stage time to amateurs, stand-up comedy in America never would have reached such great heights.

“(Our) job is to literally provide the opportunity for these people to be bad, because they’re not going to be good until they’ve been bad,” says Sobel, who saw countless comics undergo that transformation during his reign at the Caravan. “Comedians need stage time with frequency. Getting up once a month ain’t gonna do it. They need repetition …

“We are the gatekeepers for the next generation of great comedians. And make no mistake, comics are vital to our society, because the one thing they do is point the finger at what no one else can point the finger at.”