Funny business

By MIKE MILIARD  |  May 8, 2008

Change of venue
When the “Comedians of Comedy” tour hit the road in 2005 — with its attendant documentary following Oswalt, Galifianakis, Posehn, and Bamford as they crisscrossed the country — much was made of the fact that they played rock clubs rather than traditional comedy spots. But, really, it’s an idea that just makes sense.

“There are some really good comedy clubs out there, but there are also quite a few that present comedy in a cheesy way,” says Barry. “The club has a ‘crazy’ name and they encourage a ‘wacky,’ ‘let’s make some noise’ mentality. You’ll get there and see tables of bachelorette parties decked out in chocolate-penis hats, or the emcee has to find out ‘who’s celebrating anything tonight?’ and that kind of thing frightens some potentially good audience members. I meet people all the time who tell me they’re scared of seeing comedy, and I can’t say that I blame them. I also meet people after my shows who tell me I’m the first comedian they’ve ever seen live, which is odd, because you never meet someone who’s never been to the movies or seen a band.”

So, just as this new environment means audiences can become more selective when it comes to the comedians they’re fans of, so, too, are the comedians glad to play places tailor-made to their particular crowds.

That said, there are disadvantages to playing rock clubs: cavernous acoustics, or bartenders yakking during sets as they toss empty bottles in trashcans. “They’re just not used to doing a spoken-word show,” says Barry, “and I’m kind of a quiet guy.” Moreover, playing to specialized crowds can diminish the potential for wider audiences. “Because comedy clubs have a built-in draw of their own, when you’re unknown you could be playing to hundreds and hundreds of people just because people go to that club for comedy,” says Barry. “But when I do a rock club, basically the people who show up, if I’m headlining, are the people who know me. So it sort of whittles it down a little bit.”

That has its benefits, however. As the venues have evolved, so have the audiences. “They’re definitely becoming connoisseurs of the form, and they’re going out to see specific people rather than just going out to see generic comedy,” says Oswalt. “Which is good for comedians, definitely.”

“This is a very exciting time,” says Mirman. “People seem very interested in comedy. It’s also not like it’s just some random boom. The ’80s [comedy scene] crashed because there was an explosion of places, and then there weren’t really the comics to fill it. But this feels very reasonable. It doesn’t feel oversaturated.”

Twenty years ago, says Joyce, “there was a formula. There were mainstream clubs, and then you’d score a development deal or a movie deal, or a sitcom.” Now things are different. Sure, everyone hopes for success. But today the mechanisms are in place for people to find it on their own terms. “There are a lot of guys doing their own thing these days. There’s lot of diversity. It’s a pretty cool time.” No two-drink minimum required.

The AltCom Festival will take place at the Somerville Theatre, in Davis Square, on May 9 and 10. Call 617.931.2000 for tickets.

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