A few times a year, Morty’s Comedy Joint hosts a roast for one of its regular stand-up comics. On a Thursday night in July, a dais-worth of twelve comics took the stage to take shots at each other and the evening’s main target, Todd McComas. After a rapid rise from doing open mics to featuring in two short years, McComas has made a name for himself in Indy and especially among the other comedians at Morty’s, who — with the help of a steady stream of beer buckets — spent the better part of two hours ripping into each other in front of a room full of spectators.
It’s easy to imagine two hours of inside jokes told by strangers getting old, going over heads or feeling repetitive and boring for the audience. But something about the mix of low-road humor, varied styles and accessible punch lines made the night worthwhile.
Success like this has become the norm at Morty’s. After a three-month closure in early 2010, the club re-opened under new owners who were ready to revive a spot that had accumulated $50,000 in debt. Two years later, Morty’s has reasserted itself as a top-tier comedy destination, tripling average attendance numbers, according to management's count, with solid local talent and headliners like Dave Attell and Joe Rogan.
The new management (Chris Bowers, Steve Hofstetter, Marshall Chiles and Tony Deardorff) brought two key things to bear that the last team of owners lacked — on-stage experience in the comedy industry and a vision for a venue that could turn local talent into high-caliber touring headliners.
Hofstetter lives in New York City to focus on a comedy career that led him to club ownership. (Morty’s just opened a new location in the Big Apple, which is the East Coast’s stand-up Mecca.) Bowers is often seen on stage, right alongside the comics he convinces to do the open mics. Even Deardorff, who makes no claims of comedic talent, holds his own as an M.C. on the night of the roast.
McComas, Thursday’s roast target and a prime example of the new Morty’s brand, found his way to the club after the change in ownership because Bowers recruited him at an open mic night somewhere else in town. “I love Morty’s because it’s a club run by comedians,” he says.
The fact that guys like Hofstetter and Bowers are on both the show and the business sides of the industry means they understand how the two relate to each other. For example, while other comedy clubs across the country put out-of-towners up in low-grade rental housing, all visiting talent getting up at Morty’s stay in a Junior King suite at the Hyatt. Hofstetter’s reasoning for breaking from this norm? “When you grow up getting knocked around, it’s important to have a club that treats you well.”
Owners point to Mike Gardner, who got his start at Morty’s five years ago under the old owners, as a local success story. Now a national headliner, Gardner takes people like McComas with him on the road, acting as a pseudo-mentor (and good friend) for those ready to move beyond the Indy market. As McComas puts it: “The Morty’s owners run their club like a Major League Baseball team around the farm system.”
Minor leaguers can get their first at-bat in the big time via a residency program where open micers take the first step to comedy success by hosting shows. In a sort of unpaid internship, local talent spends three weeks hosting five shows a week. That sort of high-quality, concentrated stage time is hard to come by doing short spots in bars around town, so it doesn’t come without expectations: Bowers wants to make sure every guy who comes through the program gets better. In an industry where hustle can make you and lethargy can break you, comedians who come out of those 15 shows with the same material they went in with missed a valuable opportunity to improve.
Morty’s also hosts a writing workshop on Wednesdays at the club. Held in the club’s main room, the meetings find both Morty’s regulars and stand-up hopefuls working up their material, with the goal that everyone learns something. The meetings also address a long-time comedy world issue: joke theft. Vets can help newbies rewrite a new version of a tired joke that mines the same raw material for something fresh. After all, stealing jokes — intentionally or not — is a serious faux pas. So avoiding it is not only an issue of integrity; it’s a matter of staying on the right side of the people who have the power to give you stage time.
An open mic follows on Wednesday nights, featuring a dozen from a cast of colorful regulars, each of whom has something approach a unique, memorable style. If a joke sticks in your head when you walk out the door, you can usually picture the comedian who said it.
The level of freshness speaks to the atmosphere Morty’s creates for performers. Comics performing at Morty's get stage time completely different from that offered by bar shows and open mics scattered through the city.
Those other venues are useful for finding comedy sea legs. But they carry obstacles, too. “You’re either in a bar with angry drunk dudes on a Tuesday, or you’re in an open mic full of comics with their friends,” Bowers says. Todd McComas calls the bar shows with no audience except a few loud-mouthed naysayers “gladiator school” because they make the act on stage work against distractions like cute bartenders, another round of drinks and the NBA finals on umpteen flat screen televisions.
Morty’s is designed to take comics a step further, helping dedicated performers turn what might be a serious hobby into a career. It isn’t a club for those aiming for the lowest common denominator, nor for rarefied performance art. In Bowers’ words: “Our goal is to create working comedians.”
Through 2012 at Morty's
Wednesdays: The Great Indiana Mic-Off
An open mic with audience voting, with winners invited to perform on weekend bills. Four times a year, winners of the previous 12 week's shows compete to win $500 and a spot in an annual finals show.
Sept. 20-22: Tim Meadows
As seen in The Even Stevens Movie — and on Saturday Night Live.
Sept. 27: Mike Gardner
A Morty's success story tells stories of growing up with six sisters and his prior incarnation as a country club golf pro.
Sept. 28-29: Donnell Rawlings
The guy who said “I'm rich, biootch!” following each Chapelle's Show; co-host (with Charlie Murphy) of the third, Chapelle-less season of the show.
Oct. 26-27: Dave Attell
He just wouldn't never go to bed; now host of Dave's Old Porn, described as the “Mystery Science Theater of porn.”
Nov. 8-10: Kevin Brown
Dot Com on 30 Rock.
Dec. 12-16: Trial by Laughter, Season 3
A cable access (Comcast) production pitting 33 locals against each other, with prizes including $1,000 cash, a DVD shoot, an album deal and a headline week at Morty's for the winner.