For most of the day, the empty box office and smattering of signed headshots of comedy giants in Seva’s entryway are just passing peculiarities for customers walking in and out of the vegetarian restaurant. Norm Macdonald, Jon Stewart and Tim Allen smile unnoticed from their frames.
Perhaps customers don’t want to stop in the doorway scattered with wet newspaper; perhaps these comedians aren’t of interest; perhaps their faces — not yet the “Saturday Night Live” cast member, the political satirist, The Tool Man — are too unrecognizably young in their photos to catch an eye.
It’s only later when the dinner crowd dwindles and the waiters start wiping the tables that these black-and-white headshots start to take on a focused, cultural relevance. Beneath the floor of this distinctly Ann Arbor restaurant is the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase — a basement, a gritty nook of unrefined creativity, a true club. What could epitomize comedy in Ann Arbor more?
Club owner Roger Feeny opened Mainstreet Comedy Showcase in 1984 and renamed it the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase three years later when the club moved to its current location on East Liberty Street. The location reflects, or is maybe a result of, the club’s demographic: Four blocks from campus, the Comedy Showcase is a long-enough walk to ward off the busy, nervous or uncommitted students, within reach for the brave ones and more than accessible to Ann Arborites.
An outlet to develop talent
Student or not, for those that show up to open mic night or to emcee a one-nighter for a big name working on material, that wall of famous past-performers — going by the box office, down the stairs and then onto the tiny stage — becomes a kind of symbol for what could be given enough stage time, enough flubbing punch lines and, hopefully, enough validating laughter.
Young comedians in Ann Arbor don’t come to be with the best; they come to be where some of the best learned to fail, be funny and work a crowd. It’s one of the many small clubs sandwiched between New York and Los Angeles that doesn’t beat around the bush about its focus on cultivating talent. Their website states that one of its central goals is to feature "the best of the rising young stars in the comedy business.”
It’s no wonder that the aspiring Louis C.K.s and Mitch Hedbergs flock there on Wednesday nights for open mics, which the Showcase calls “Comedy Jamms” — a night exhibiting the promising and the not-so-promising, but an essential cog in the great wheel of stand-up comedy nonetheless.
“As a club and as a business, I know I’m never going to make money on an open mic night,” Feeny said. “But as a comedy club, you have to have an outlet to develop talent.”
Potential participants call in on Thursday to put their name on the list, and then 12 names are randomly chosen to perform. On Saturday, they find out if their name was picked. If there’s enough time at the end of night, a few people on a standby list might get their five minutes.
“It’s all local and that’s where you get your talent from. Somebody somewhere has got some talent and is gonna be a headliner someday,” Feeny said. “Maybe they won’t get rich and famous, but they’ll be able to make a living doing what they love doing, and that’s what life is.”
But open mic night is not just a display of people new to the scene, and those new to the scene are not necessarily in the prime of their life. Looking in the back of the room at the comedians waiting to go up, whispering jokes to themselves, flipping through notebooks or just talking about past shows, it’s hard to tell who’s fresh and who’s a local veteran trying out new material.
Some of the young kids are polished and confident; some of the 60-year-olds stutter over notecards.
Russel Rabb, a 20-something Ann Arbor resident, is a regular to the Showcase.
“Open mic consists of people that are professional comedians, people that have never done comedy in their lives and everything in between,” he said.
“(An open mic is) not really about the laughs. It’s about, ‘let me get in front of an audience that is paying for me to be here and work some things out — work this bit out.’ But then you have the guys that are all about the open mic: ‘I’m competing against this guy; I’m funnier than that guy.’ ”
Rabb used his stage time very matter-of-factly. He would say a joke, step back from the moment to evaluate the room and then run back to his notebook to transcribe his results, once even saying, “Never doing that joke again.” Near the end of his five minutes, seeing the red light flashing that his time was almost up, Rabb thought of one more thing and said quickly, “I don’t really have a joke for this, but here’s an idea I think is interesting … ”
A community of comics
Yet despite the almost didactic atmosphere the comedy club creates for its open mic nights, there don’t seem to be a lot of University students present on Wednesdays.
“I have no idea,” Feeny said. “Last year we had quite a few coming in. This year there’s not that many. Next year maybe there will be some.”
LSA senior Jake Fromm, one of the few University students to make regular Wednesday appearances, pointed out that the meetings for student organization LOL ROFL Comedy Club also happen to fall on Wednesday, so student comedians have to choose which venue is best for them. Fromm (who is a former Daily photographer) is active in both, but noted the value of the Comedy Showcase.
“There’s something really valuable about a real room with a mic and a light and a crowd that’s paid to see you,” he said. “I prefer to go up and do the real thing instead of workshopping.”
Fromm only started doing standup last May, but it’s a passion that he plans to pursue far into the future. He hopes to get a job teaching English in Asia when he graduates and would like to pursue comedy in New York at some point.
“I don’t know what the comedy scene is like in Nepal, but there’s probably not going to be any open mics there,” he said.
Fromm’s name was near the bottom of the standby list the first week that I went to see him, but he was hopeful and prepared nonetheless. Before the show, he sat at a table by himself, writing in a small notebook and working out jokes in his head.
“It’s just bullet points and concepts. Sometimes I’ll have the rhythm in my head and so I’ll write down exactly how the joke is going to go,” he said. “But (usually I’m) just writing down points that I want to hit. Onstage you figure out what works and what doesn’t work and even if you haven’t written down the exact words, you probably could.”
The show was running too long that week, so Fromm never got his chance to perform. But he stuck around anyway, laughing and talking in the back with the rest of the comedians. “There’s a comradery,” he told me. “A community of comics … the guys that go up a lot — they all know each other.”
Convenience and accessibility
Like many of the comics in this small community, Fromm is just trying to climb the ladder. Successful open mics lead to emceeing, emceeing leads to featuring, featuring could get the attention of a booking agent and a booking agent just might lead to headlining — a shot at stardom.
Comedians at every phase of the process grace Feeny’s stage throughout the year, with the end of the week devoted to the more-established performers: the headliners.
In the last few years, the Showcase has seen comedians with national appeal, like Aziz Ansari, Mas Jabroni and Doug Benson. Joe Rogan, in Detroit announcing a Saturday Ultimate Fighting Championship fight, asked Feeny if he could drop by the Friday before to do a show.
Shows featuring this caliber of comedian are rare on the calendar, but when they do show up, it’s usually in a situation like Joe Rogan’s. It gives them a chance to work out some rougher material and to have some fun in a low-key setting.
“We see them on the way up and we see them on the way down,” Feeny said. “We’re not going to see them on the top because we don’t seat enough people, to be frank.”
Most of the week’s headliners have a regional or budding popularity, and come to spread their name, develop an identity onstage or just work a room with a solid reputation.
Comedian David Dyer, who will be performing Feb. 28 to March 2, comes to the Showcase for many of these reasons and shares an enthusiasm for the club with similar headliners.
“That’s an excellent room to work out material — to just really try new things and grow a little bit. That’s one of my favorite rooms in the country,” Dyer said. “I know a ton of comics who will tell you they just love working that room. It’s a great intimate setting; the crowds are excellent — they’re smart.”
In the last 20 years, Dyer has put his humor to work in just about every medium: He’s written for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Politically Incorrect,” done character voices on radio and recorded a comedy special “Yowza!” But with a wife and two daughters in Grand Rapids, Dyer has found himself utilizing YouTube and other Internet resources to grow his name so he doesn’t have to travel too far from home.
“I have a family and I’m not in a position to nor do I have any plans to move, so you know what? I’m going to do a bunch of stuff myself,” he said.
In this way, the value of the Showcase for Dyer becomes one largely of convenience and accessibility. At the same time, it represents something greater about honing one’s craft.
It’s just comedy
“The reason that I’m doing that video stuff is to showcase acting and writing,” Dyer said. “But if you want to do standup … you can do stuff that’s funny on YouTube, but man, you still have to step up in front of 200 people and do it. And that’s the only way you’re going to get better, is to get onstage.”
Fromm had his chance to get better the following week that I went to see him, when he was among the top-12 comics set to perform for Wednesday’s open mic.
I showed up to the club early that night, hoping to pick Fromm’s brain for anxieties and expectations. Though he would later deny it, you could see the nervousness on his face. As I sat down, he gave me a quick smile, a quiet hello and returned to his notebook.
But onstage, Fromm was cool and relaxed, which was one of the reasons that his set stood out from many others. A lot of his jokes were new or going through their second trial-run, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from watching him. He had a strong stage presence, smooth delivery and an intuition for timing. His jokes were largely observational, and accurately so. It was clear that he had figured out, on a fundamental level, how to make a room laugh.
Even when he stumbled over one of his jokes, and when an audience member chose to engage him after a spur-of-the-moment remark about the Pope, Fromm maintained composure, improvised and came out of both situations unscathed.
“It wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked,” he told me after the show. “It was an organic energy, and the interaction with the crowd was good. I’m trying to get better at performing — just being on stage and being naturally funny not with stuff that I’ve written.”
Fromm was specific and articulate about his improvement, his goals and what kind of performer he wanted to be in the next open mic. But even with his improvement, wouldn’t Fromm and other young comedians be better off in a town like, say, New York? Chicago? L.A.? Is Ann Arbor and its Comedy Showcase the right place for a young comic? Fromm wasn’t entirely sure.
“It’s the only comedy town I’ve really experienced,” he said. “It’s a good town to make comedy but I don’t know if it’s a great town for building a career around.”
Feeny’s answer seemed to sum it up best.
“That’s pretty deep,” he said laughing. “It’s just comedy.”