Comedy, sings the old saw, is serious business. And in Indianapolis, with four comedy clubs stringing from 96th Street south to Greenwood, business is thriving. But is Indianapolis really a comedy town, a place that nurtures and develops talent, or is it just a way station, someplace the touring pros can cash a check on their way from New York to L.A. and back?
Brooke Showalter, 20, has been performing around Indy for the last year. A staple at open mic nights around town, Brooke has recently begun finding paying work as an MC, the point of entry for professional comics.
We polled seven locals, six comics ranging from open-mic-ers to touring pros and a club manager, about the state of things. Q: Is Indianapolis a funny town? ES: Comparatively, Indianapolis isn’t a funny town. There isn’t enough opportunity for new talent to grow. I think it is great to have big names come out, but what helps to create a buzz is for Indy to become a place where newer comedians are encouraged. BS: People appreciate comedy, but you can’t get away with much controversial material here. RAHB: This is our 22nd year and 75 percent of our shows are sold out. We have two locations and both places we are selling out 75 percent of our shows. That is a great indication that Hoosiers love comedy. SL: Bob and Tom, they are the home team; they’ve made people more focused on comedy. This town has more comedy clubs per capita than any other city in the U.S. Cincinnati has one. Louisville has one. Columbus: one. Cleveland: two. Indianapolis has four. I think that Bob and Tom have done a great job of turning people’s attention to comedy. Indy supports comedy better than any other place in the country. DD: There are some towns that are just awesome comedy towns because they nurture innovation and local guys. This isn’t one of those towns. We pretty much get the meat and potatoes of comedy. There are not a lot of risky or unbankable comedians who come through town. Q: What, if anything, needs to be changed? RAHB: I would love to see more people interested in coming to amateur night. Most of the people who are coming out are coming with the amateurs that are on stage. It would be great if more people came out to see the raw talent that we have. BS: It would be nice if the media paid attention more — radio, TV, newspaper. SL: The clubs could nurture local comics who do more challenging material. I am not even saying edgy. I think there is too much lowest common denominator comedy that gets on stage in town. Q: What was, or is, the bigger challenge in your career: getting your foot in the door or keeping it there? ES: Getting your foot in the door. That’s what it is all about. I know many comedians that, once they get in, you can f* up a million times, but once you’ve got your foot in the door you are fine. The managers and bookers are more than happy to stay with the status quo instead of constantly looking for the next funny guy. RAHB: It’s equal. I get bombarded with videos, CDs and bios from comedians. Once they have my attention and they come to the club, then it’s a matter of how well do they do on the radio and how well they work with the media. It’s not enough to just be funny; we have to be able to market them. If the comics are shy about promotions, unless they have a draw based on just their name there is no way to get the room full. DD: Getting my foot out of club owners’ asses. Actually, it’s a little bit of both. When you don’t have big credits it’s hard to move up … It’s hard to get bumped up in the town where you started out. They always remember how bad you used to be. Q: How hard is it to develop your own style? Is a unique style essential? RAHB: It helps to have a unique style, but you have to be constantly updating your material. Andrew Dice Clay had one type of comedy and he died off because he never evolved. A comedian who does the same thing over and over again just gets stale. DD: What the network and TV people look for is strong point of view. Where is this guy coming from? It has to be immediate almost as soon as you walk on stage. I don’t know why they think this is so important. Seinfeld had no point of view, but that’s the buzzword in the industry right now. MF: Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have your own style, something that sets you apart, but the most important thing is to be the funniest you that you can. I try to keep my stage persona as close to my own personality as I can. It’s just me intensified. Not all comics are like that, some comics are one person on stage and a completely different person off stage. Q: Where do you look for your material? SL: Initially, I was a topical comic. I was influenced by Dennis Miller and Bill Hicks, George Carlin. I discovered quickly that people don’t want a lot of that. There are hardly any topical comics anymore. Especially in this climate of political correctness and fervent patriotism. Any questioning of government is a tight rope. DD: When I was first starting out, I would just walk around the room rambling, just talking to myself, pretending that I was in front of an audience. It’s really important to be yourself on stage. Unless, of course, you aren’t funny. Then you need to be somebody else really quick. MF: Life in general, whether it is in my home, my children, whatever. Everything. When you are a comic you look at everything as a potential joke. Q: What is more important for a comic: good delivery or good material? Otto: Material … but its all in the delivery. It’s about equal, really. You can have a really great delivery but if you don’t have good material you aren’t going to make it. The more you are on stage the more fluid you become and the less the crowd can move you. RAHB: It goes hand and hand. I have heard comedians tell a joke on stage and loved it, but then heard them on the radio, and it doesn’t work, you need the facial expressions, hand motions, the whole package. DD: Definitely different for everybody. I have some jokes that on paper are stupid, but the delivery makes them happen. I have some other jokes that are pretty good, they don’t need a delivery. You just say the words. MF: One doesn’t really work without the other. However, I have noticed that with perfect delivery material that may not be as strong as some of your other stuff may get that extra oomph. Delivery is like a spit shine on an otherwise good joke. Q: Is it enough to just be funny or does success require something else? BS: You have to be confident for sure. There is always going to be somebody who wants to bring you down a notch, but you just have to ignore that and stay confident. Otto: I think someone should be funny, but it should be easy to look at them and I think they should respect the audience. I am older and I come from an old German family. If you are going to go out you need to dress nice and respect people. Some of those people are paying customers. SL: Many other things. That is where a lot of people fail. In comedy, you have to be a business person. When you are off stage you are working as a marketer of yourself. That’s why I like it, because if I have to sell a product, what product would I rather sell than me? MF: A lot of comics say that they don’t really like people, but I don’t think that’s true. I think comics really love people and that’s why they do what they do. So, I think when a comic really loves to make people laugh and enjoys making them happy it shows. It helps. Q: Is the goal just to make people laugh, or do you feel compelled to have an additional “something” in your act? ES: For me personally, it is to make people laugh, and then possibly to educate. If you don’t, fine. I associate it with Olympic diving; two people may do a great dive, but one may have a higher level of difficulty. If someone can make you laugh about something, but also makes you think, that’s the height of comedy. Otto: I want the audience to walk away and think, “Tomorrow is going to be a better day for me.” I want people to walk away thinking it’s a lot easier to make a better life than a creepier life. Positivity, like negativity, they are both a step away from reality, but if you are going to be one or the other, it’s better to be positive. RAHB: I just want my audience to have a good time and laugh. I don’t book comedians because they have a message to send, I just want to make sure that my customers leave laughing and happy. SL: I am one of the few who definitely feel like I am compelled to push an audience. I don’t want to come off like I am Christopher Columbus sailing to some new land. I am not Lenny Bruce. I am not changing the laws, but I am trying to continue that path. DD: Ultimately it’s humor, and if you can do something beyond that it’s awesome. It’s hard to do, though [at a] Friday, 10:30 show, everybody is just inebriated. They just want to see a freak show. The people who were raised on Jerry Springer? Now they’re old enough to drink and they’re in the comedy clubs. MF: At some point in my career I would like to get there, but right now I just want to make them laugh, have a good time, that’s it. Like Carlin, he gets his point across while making you laugh. That’s an evolution. When I am comfortable enough to be that deep about myself and reveal that much about myself, I will. I just want to make sure that it is still funny and that just comes with time. Q: Does it help a comic to be shocking, outrageous, controversial? ES: Maybe initially, but you need to develop a consistency in whatever your material is. If you are going to be on stage for 30 minutes and two minutes of it are shocking, it plays like a ploy. If you are going to be shocking then you need to continue to be shocking. You can’t just be jumping all over the place in your material. It’s too much for the audience to focus on. Otto: If you want to be known as a controversial comic it does. I don’t do politics and religion in my show. I think a large percentage of the general public goes for that stuff. I watched Dave Attell recently and during his set he took six shots of Jaegermeister and drank two beers and each time he took a shot, the audience applauded him like he was a genius. SL: A lot of clubs don’t want to deal with people being provocative or edgy. They are a corporation, even if they are just a small business. If two people are offended they will leave and not come back. I can understand that. I am not blind to it. There is way more commerce than art in stand-up comedy. DD: Oh yeah, and when I say it helps I don’t mean that in a good way. These guys go out and say things just to make people gasp. Some of them know what they are doing and some are just trying to be edgy. That’s another catch phrase that’s big right now: edgy. I mean can’t you just be funny without pushing buttons? Q: Is comedy an appropriate medium for addressing the issues that make us uncomfortable? Issues like race, sexuality, politics, religion. ES: Stand-up comedy frees me up to say things I would never say in regular conversation. A lot of these issues don’t get discussed, so this is an opportunity to bring these subjects out in the open. For just a few seconds you can make everybody think about the same thing at the same time. Otto: I don’t do that at all. I don’t do the politics and religion stuff. I don’t want to go anywhere where I would make anyone feel bad. I would quit before I’d do that, and I’d never quit. SL: Look, the only way you can reach a mass audience with controversial issues is with comedy. If you don’t they are going to tune it out or get completely angry. If somebody I completely disagree with politically says something funny, it may open my eyes even if I don’t agree with it. MF: Absolutely. If you are able to address issues that are taboo and bring a new light to it and make it funny, I think that is a beautiful thing. If you can bring up something that makes people uncomfortable and make them laugh at it and know that they aren’t the only ones that feel that way, then it’s positive. As long as it is funny and positive: do it. If it is mean spirited and derogative take it somewhere else. That’s what they have Klan rallies for. Q: What is it about a situation, joke or story that makes it funny, that allows people to react to it with laughter? ES: If you take an absurd situation and talk about it as true, or take a situation that is true and make it larger than life, it resonates with people. When you see people give that knowing nod to their friends, because you hit something right on, it’s very gratifying. RAHB: When you get a room full of people together and they are sat closely, it’s darker, and it’s a crazy thing, or a sexual thing, as soon as the first person laughs, then everybody starts laughing immediately. Sometimes if the crowd is spread out, the same material may not work. SL: Charlie Chaplin was once asked, what’s the funniest element in this situation, the banana peel or the fat guy walking down the street? Chaplin said neither one. It’s the open manhole cover before the banana peel that you don’t see that is funny. I think that’s what’s important. It’s the thing that you don’t see coming. DD: I like to run a story straight at you and then take a hard left right at the end. The audience thinks they know where you are going and then you pull the ol’ switcheroosky on them. Q: Is it harder for a female comic to break in? ES: No. It’s easier. Clubs are looking for variety. Being a black comedian, I never work with a black headliner. It’s not circumstance. Clubs want variety. Just for the sake of having a different point of view, female comedians get booked. That’s just reality. Otto: Yes. Absolutely. This is my theory. I know that women rule the world. I am happy with that. I don’t mind. I like women. But over the history of time, you know what happens to guys with alcohol, which is what you get in comedy clubs: They don’t respect women. So unless the women come out and are really pretty the guys won’t be listening very well. And females just aren’t friendly to each other. It’s a fact. So if the comic is really pretty, the women in the audience will resent her. One way or the other, she’s lost half the crowd as soon as she comes out on stage. RAHB: I think so. People already think in their mind that females aren’t as funny. SL: It’s easier to break in and become successful, but it’s a lot harder to deal with the elements outside of comedy. It’s an all-male business. I guess it’s like being a female reporter in the men’s locker room. There is going to be a lot of inappropriate behavior, but you kind of have to accept it until you make it. Look, I am sure that every female comic wants to hear what I have to say, but I think sometimes they are too female specific on stage and men just tune them out. DD: I’ll probably get my nuts chopped off for this, but if you are at least good or moderate it’s easier. [Female comics] are in demand because there are fewer of them. The white man, I tell you, is not in demand. I don’t know why it trickles down to comedy. Everybody wants something new, and all they know is something old, which is “white man.” Everybody has seen the white guy do stand-up. It isn’t just women, though, it’s any ethnicity. I mean, you still have to be decent, but if you are pretty good and ethnic or female you have a better chance of making it than if you are just vanilla. At this time, at least. It will all switch and flow. MF: It wasn’t for me. I guess because I am funny. If I thought of myself as a female comic instead of just a comic I think I might hold the bar lower for myself. Q: What is life on the road like? ES: I like it, you get to get out and see some different parts of the country, plus you get stale working the same clubs over and over. Going into a new venue, I know that I want to impress the people there so I can come back so I am giving my all. SL: It’s unique. We are on stage an hour a night. We have a lot of downtime. I love it. That is one of the reasons I have really embraced stand-up comedy. I like the free time and I also don’t mind the driving. I think a lot of people don’t understand that if I do 46 weeks a year, I only fly to 10 of them. I am like a truck driver who tells jokes. I have seen some perfectly good comics derailed because they couldn’t take care of their cars. DD: It is so not glamorous. I play guitar, do a lot of stuff on the computer. Sleep is always good. It’ll knock out a couple hours. Q: With the explosion of cable channels, stand-up shows seem to come a dime a dozen anymore. Has the reaction to and expectations of stand-up comedy changed? ES: I think the majority of stand-up on TV doesn’t represent what the performing in the clubs is about. You have restrictions on content, what you can say, how you can say it. Forget about four-letter words. That’s not a big part of what I do. But topics of an adult content, you are restricted from doing. That is a lot of the reason that people come out to the club. I think the product in the club is a lot better than the product you get on TV. SL: I really disagree with the theory. In the early ’90s there was A&E with Evening at the Improv two hours a night. VH1 Stand Up Spotlight. MTV had the MTV Comedy Hour. There were two comedy channels. I think there is less stand-up on TV now than there has been in the last 20 years. DD: I don’t think it’s on as much as you think. Back in the ’90s it was on every channel, a half hour, even an hour every night. That’s when people stopped coming to the clubs because stand-up was always on TV. The number of people coming out to the clubs really dwindled after that. In the last few years clubs are starting to open again. Markets that didn’t have clubs for a while are reopening.