My name is Chris Davis and I’m a stand-up comedian. I realize introducing myself like that is akin to an introduction at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m not looking for a support group or trying to kick the habit of stand-up comedy. I can quit anytime I want to! But I don’t want to quit.
I want to do more, and that’s what I and a band of merry misfits and delinquents are doing right here in Birmingham. I started doing improv comedy in 2000 and gradually moved to stand-up. Who knew improv was a gateway comedy? Stand-up is such a different world. Just a lone troubadour, a microphone and an audience. It can be a very intimate experience or wild party depending on the night, the location, the routine or the comedian. Stand-up can be as consistent as the trains running on time and, at other moments, like a derailment. For all its good, bad and ugly traits, I love doing it and so many others in town do too.
I run a monthly show called Fresh Ground Comics, created by my very funny fellow comedian and friend Russell Ehrett about 10 years ago. Russell is fortunate and funny enough to be on the road a lot doing gigs, so I’ve taken the reins to host for FGC, which showcases the best local stand-up in town.
Yes, you heard me. There is a local stand-up comedy scene in Birmingham and there has been for years. Where have you been? Some people in the city are familiar with the Comedy Club Stardome in Hoover. It’s a great venue offering a lot of touring comics and big-name acts. I was fortunate to have performed on the big stage at Stardome last November when I opened up and hosted a show for headlining comedian Matt Davis. Matt’s also a local guy who’s done very well for himself, touring all over America and Canada. Canadians love stand-up comedy. You can’t just sit around eating moose meat and getting free healthcare all day long.
Matt and Russell have been paying their dues and it’s paying off. But they, like all comics, got their start in coffee shops, seedy bars, dank hole-in-the-wall clubs, and old hobo couches under highway overpasses. By the way, if you get a chance to stop by the old hobo couch under Highway 31, ask for one-eyed Pete and mention my name. But watch out for his stabbing hand. Oh, that Pete loves his stabbing!
FGC and Stardome have been fun places to do comedy. I’ve had great times there and at so many other venues in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Atlanta, and New York. Some highlights of my comedy career in Birmingham include opening up for Michael Ian Black, Al Madrigal, and Janeane Garofalo when they came to town on separate occasions. Great shows and they were really nice people. But the stories of less-than-stellar nights are almost more fun to talk about.
Stand-up is like a cursed monkey paw you buy in a curiosities shop. It can bring you fortune and then, all of a sudden, eternal damnation. Sometimes all in the same night! Let me regale you with a few tales along with some fancy stand-up terminology. Hey, look at that–you’re learning and having fun.
TOUGH CROWD: Maybe the audience sucks or you do, but if you can’t get them to laugh, then it’s a tough crowd. I’ve played some really tough ones before. The toughest crowd we played recently was at my buddy Ken Partridge Jr.’s show, Cheap Laughs. It was at Zydeco in Five Points South. They say timing is everything and no one knows when your time is up–which is why we were quite surprised to show up to perform in the middle of an Irish wake. Talk about being double-booked! We were supposed to start the show at 9 p.m. We kept waiting and they kept mourning. By 10:15 the mourners had dwindled from about 20 to maybe five and they were not the least bit interested in us. After a few valiant attempts, we just shut it down and grabbed a sandwich around the corner. Good times.
HECKLERS: These are people who despite their lack of microphone, personality and, many times, good hygiene, insist on yelling at the comedian and disrupting the show. One Saturday night I had to contend with a rowdy bunch of college guys at a club in Atlanta. The insurmountable odds before me: the Georgia Bulldogs had just won, they were rowdy frat boys, and one of them had turned 21 that day. This is known as the Hotlanta Trifecta.
It was hard, but I managed to get the fellas to listen while not dumbing down my comedy too much. It’s difficult to pierce the hard shell of school pride and Jager bombs. That’s one way to handle hecklers. The other way is to tear them asunder. I personally don’t do this, but it’s a sight to behold when someone else does it and does it well. Being mean and funny is an art.
Michael McCall runs an open mike night called Comickaze. Open mikes can be great. But they’re free and open to anyone so therein lies the danger. It’s a hotbed for hecklers. One night at Comickaze, fellow comic Joe Raines had just about enough of some lady (heckler) and proceeded to give her a verbal tongue lashing. I won’t go into detail of exactly what he said, but let’s just say they’re still picking bits of that heckler’s pride out of the upholstery ceiling fan. Brutal.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: I’ve performed in churches and biker bars. All jokes don’t overlap with all audiences so a comedian has to be aware that one might not dig the same thing another would. One of the most interesting shows I’ve done was when we were booked at an actual Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I had never performed at AA before, so I guessed my audience would like something smart and light, and certainly nothing drug- or alcohol-related. The guy in charge told us that these people have seen tough times and have lived hard lives, so we didn’t have to use kid gloves on them. They were fragile in many ways, he said, but they were tough. And they were. They liked everything we dished out because it was not just real funny, but it was real.
On a completely different note, I once did a show at McAnally’s Bar in Hoover where one table was filled with self-proclaimed Satan worshippers and a table at the other end of the room was filled with self-proclaimed polygamists. I won’t say I really knew that audience, but I bet it was one heck of an after party!
KNOW WHEN TO GET OFF: Even if you’re doing great, a smart comedian knows when to get off stage. You always end on a high note. Leave them wanting more. Even if you’re bombing, you try to get a good laugh in there, if possible. And if that works, you don’t tempt fate. You say, “Thank you and good night!” then beat it. This isn’t a hard science.
Every situation is different, but some–like what happened to Martin Morrow–are more different than others. Martin is an Auburn grad and an up-and-coming comic who honed his skills here in Birmingham. He lives in Chicago now, performing in many places. One of the most memorable performances of his career was at a local venue I will refrain from identifying.
Martin was on stage at this late night comedy show and was doing a little crowd work–engaging the audience during the routine. Martin spied a guy by the jukebox in full Western regalia (cowboy hat, boots, the whole deal). He started talking to the jukebox hero and it became clear that Tex wasn’t having any of it. In fact, he started being pretty nasty to Martin, who, of course, thought he’d use the cowboy’s reaction to try to be funny. That’s when Mr. Three-songs-for-a-dollar lifted his shirt to show Martin that he was packing heat. Martin promptly ended his set–without, I’d like to add, any further attempts at comedy, or incidents of any kind. If there was ever a time to know when to get off the stage, that was it.
Except for the few instances I’ve mentioned, stand-up in the city is pretty routine, not to mention pretty fun. Comics show up prepared and hope that people laugh, which they often do. We all enjoy it a great deal, even when there’s no money, small crowds, terrible crowds, bad venues or bad jokes. It’s a lot of fun to get up on stage and tell the audience what’s on your mind and have them enjoy it as much as you do telling it.
And for that I say thanks, Birmingham.
Christopher Davis wanted to call this story “Making A Stand – (Then immediately sitting back down again).” This is his first contribution to Weld. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.