After 40 years, the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase continues to thrive, shine

Gary Gulman performing

Gary Gulman performing Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase

 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 4:00pm

The phrase “hole in the wall” is thrown around a lot, but the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase might have the best claim to the ubiquitous descriptor. It’s a hole in scaffolding.

That’s because the Showcase’s home — a short, anonymous building on Fourth Avenue between Liberty and Washington — is under renovation, and all signs of the Showcase’s very existence are reserved to the covered sidewalk that runs next to the construction: a folded sign on the street, large blue letters on the door and the brief sight of an attended ticket office through the glass.

But once inside the doors, and down the hallway and down the stairs and across from the bar, the Comedy Showcase is inviting. Excited 20-somethings are mingling, drink orders are being taken; there’s a giddy air of anticipation before a show.

At the center of the Comedy Showcase’s operations sits the soft-spoken yet deliberate Roger Feeny (“I honestly don’t like to do interviews”), a smallish man with graying wiry hair and focused eyes behind large, tortoiseshell glasses. One would hardly think of the 60-something Feeny, who was dressed in a hoodie and polo and quietly sipping tea as we spoke, as the sort of entertainment genius who could keep a club afloat for 33 years in one of Michigan’s most competitive real estate markets. And yet there we were.

Feeny founded the club in 1984 when he was 29. He had been a dockworker and teamster for 10 years, hardly a recognizable career path from this vantage point. His brother-in-law, Kirkland Teeple, had established himself as a stand-up comic on the road before coming to Ann Arbor with the hopes of starting a comedy club. Starting up a club in a big town from scratch requires more than just a sense of humor (though that certainly helps), but Teeple and Feeny created a perfect match: Teeple knew the comics, and Feeny had a business sense, and so the pair opened up a comedy club above the Heidelberg Restaurant on Main Street in Ann Arbor.

The Mainstreet Comedy Showcase remained on its titular street for a few years before moving in 1987 to the VFW Hall on Liberty Street, where Jerusalem Garden sits now. The Showcase relocated to its current location on Fourth Avenue in 2014. In between, the club has sponsored softball teams in town, hosted benefits for the community and put on golf outings for the staff.

Ann Arbor, it turned out, is a great location for the club.

“The school and the curriculum spits out doctors and lawyers and Ann Arbor’s a smart town,” Feeny said. “So we’ve got smart people that come here.”

That intelligence puts pressure on comedians; here, even slapstick comedy, which is based in embarrassment and errors, can make you think.

While the club has moved a number of times, the structure of its shows has remained consistent. At a typical stand-up show, an emcee, and perhaps another comedian, will play the role of warm-up act, each telling jokes for about five minutes. The opener is followed by the featured act, a more established comedian, who entertains the crowd for about 15 minutes. The headliner, with a set of about 50 minutes, closes out the show.

Feeny acknowledges that there’s a business strategy to the timing — 90 minutes, he notes, is the typical length of a film before an audience starts to shift in its seats — but when the shows are good, it’s a win-win situation.

“It’s taken from the restaurant philosophy: Feed ‘em, don’t stuff ‘em, so they’ll want to come back for more,” he said.

Saturday nights are the most popular shows, and winter is the busy season. His key to success is bringing in a wide variety of comics and comedic styles: slapstick and storytellers, men and women, catering to old and young.

Over time, Feeny has incidentally become a sort of comedy guru, continually providing a forum for young, budding comics to perform at open mics. “We like to develop talent,” Feeny said. “I’ve been known to give guys their first headline gig and bring in guys you don’t really hear of, but they’re very funny.”

The Showcase hosts weekly open mics, which can help young comics try out the medium. “You can come and work on your material,” said Erich Laux, a recent University of Michigan graduate and budding stand-up who often performs at the Showcase. “And through that he’s in the local scene because he sees all the younger and newer comics come through. So he can see when somebody is ready to start hosting.”

Feeny’s quick to give out advice to young comics, too.

“You have to keep writing,” he said. “That’s what I keep telling them: Keep writing clean material. That’s the only way you’re going to learn how to write jokes.”

Undoubtedly a result of Feeny’s efforts at creating a supportive training ground for rising comedians, the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase has become a go-to destination for comics looking to find friendly audiences. While most performers are from southeastern Michigan, “guys come to the open mic night from over 100 miles away,” Feeny said. “They’ll drive in to do five minutes on stage.”

One hundred miles is no easy drive for anyone, let alone a young comics who may be just feeling out the industry and looking for available open mic nights, but their willingness to drive all the way for five minutes in an Ann Arbor basement is indicative of the support system Feeny provides.

“If you’ve got a good stage to perform on, they’ll come a long way,” he added.

Laux, the budding comic, started performing stand-up through a student organization at the University called LOL ROFL — “It was started when that was still relevant,” he said — and would go to the Showcase to see comics and perform at the open mic nights.

Now, he spends time in a community of rising stand-ups who stay at the Showcase to watch and learn from the performers. They carpool to different shows around the state and share notes and horror stories with one another.

Laux readily acknowledges the help that Feeny and the Showcase provide. “Roger is the owner and he runs (the Showcase),” Laux said, “so he has say in all the shows and everyone he books.” Feeny’s style is in sharp contrast to more corporate-run comedy clubs elsewhere. Those clubs lack the sort of personal touch and quality that has become the hallmark of the Showcase, where comedians have to impress Feeny in order to move up to performing at shows other than open mics.

Laux was the emcee this past Saturday at 8 p.m., and he was followed by Nicole Majdali, a Livonia-based comedian with a more confessional style. Chris Daniels, originally from Michigan and now living in New York, served as the featured comic.

The headliner featured the show’s biggest name: Dave Landau, a comedian from Detroit who was featured on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” Before he was a touring stand-up comic, Landau was based at Second City in Chicago, when a friend there suggested he should try his hand at a solo act. He made his way to Ann Arbor, where he started at the open mics.

“The open mic really gave you training wheels that nowhere else could because the audience was always more diverse and a little more heady,” said Landau in a roundtable of comics, including Majdali, Daniels and Nate Armbruster, who also performs regularly at the club, in the green room after the 8:00 show. “They expected more out of the comic and I loved that about it.”

The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase was the first place both Daniels and Armbruster had performed comedy. Armbruster was in high school in Dearborn when he first came to a class offered at the club. Soon after, he began to perform at open mics. He was so young that Roger had to call his mother to make sure she approved of him performing stand-up. That was nine years ago. Now, bearded and leaning back on the green room couch, he’s a regular.

Daniels was 17 when, unbeknownst to him, his friends signed him up for an open mic at the venue after he had boasted of his comedic talents. Suddenly, Daniels was thrust into a five-minute set — a rarity in his current milieu — which he remembers going well, joking about partying with friends and Britney Spears’s attempted comeback.

“I had easy targets at the time,” he said.

Majdali is the newest to the club in the room. She caught wind of the open mic and continued to return.

“I did not come to Ann Arbor until I got hooked on coming here,” Majdali said, enamored with the support system at the club, including the comics sitting in the back and the bartenders that serve and laugh along with the audience. “Now I go to Ann Arbor a couple times a week.”

Even the space itself is crafted for optimal performances. Behind the comedian looms a white backdrop with the club logo, cropped by glass blocks lit an electric blue. The stage is rather small, the ceilings are low and the first row of the audience is huddled around the stage. The result is a large-capacity space that feels intimate, even from the back row.

“A room with 20 people can feel like a 100,” Armbruster said.

“It encourages participation,” Daniels added.

“It feels like a nightclub in the basement of a place,” Landau said, which he explained makes the Showcase something of an oasis in the Midwest, where that ambience is more of a rarity.

But even in such a tight space, no comedian is guaranteed success. Bombing in Ann Arbor is something all the comedians have experienced, and it especially stings.

“It’s a great place to grow as a comic because you get good audiences,” Landau said. “They kind of expect more from you and when you bomb here you really fucking bomb.”

Daniels attributes the low lows to the spirit of the crowd.

“They just seem to enjoy it a lot more than in a lot of other places,” he said. “They just kind of create an atmosphere, and that helps, so that’s why for me doing bad here feels like you kamikaze’d yourself. You had a win and you blew it.”

But even when the comedian is down, Feeny is there to help. As long as the comedian in question is trying new material and working hard, “they’re not judging you and kicking you out and saying don’t come back,” Landau said. Instead, the comedian is encouraged to try again.

Armbruster recalls that occasionally, if he tries something that falls flat before an audience, he’ll hear Feeny cackling quietly in the background — it’s “one of the worst and best feelings,” he said. “You just know that he’s enjoying it because he knows exactly what’s going through your head.”

The others nodded in agreement. Landau added that when a comedian totally offends the crowd, “you’ll also hear that laugh sometimes and it’s so encouraging, because you think, ‘Oh, the guy who really gets comedy got it so I don’t care what anyone else thinks.’”

That’s in sharp contrast to other clubs in the area where the owners are often divorced from the comedians, to say nothing of the corporate-run clubs to which Laux contrasted the Showcase. At some of those other clubs, “somebody could walk here and punch me in the face and nobody would have my back,” Armbruster said.

But it’s different at the Showcase — Feeny provides a wealth of resources to his comedians.

“He has a speech at every open mic: ‘Don’t go over the time,’” Majdali said. “He’s trying to teach you to be a professional and a good comic, and sometimes people don’t get that. And it’s very important. They’re teaching you business skills.”

And even better for comics: “They just understand comedy,” Armbruster added.

“Don’t take it for granted,” warned Daniels, the Michigan transplant in New York. “If you leave here and hit the road or if you move to a bigger comedy scene, they’re not as forgiving and you won’t be able to hone your skills in the same way.”

“But every time I come here,” Daniels said, “I’m like, ‘This feels good. It feels like home.’”