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Iowa City's comedy scene takes off with help of local comedians

BY AUDREY DWYER | JANUARY 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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Down a dimly lit staircase, an eerie-looking basement emerges. Once a mortuary, the brick building is now filled with laughter.

The cause? Comedy.

"The Catacombs of Comedy" at the Yacht Club is the hub for performers in the local comedy scene. The historic building was once the location of Hohenschuh Mortuary; it became the original Yacht Club in the '80s, and then, in 2003, it became what it is today.

Three years ago, the "little comedy scene that could" had not been conceived. Now, with the help of comedian Tom Garland and a few other local stars, it has flourished with hopeful performers eager to make a big break. Garland, a former Daily Iowan TV reporter, got his comedic start at the Yacht Club and the Penguin Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids. He is the regular host of the venue's open-mike nights, held every Monday at 10 p.m.

Not only has Garland helped kick-start the local comedy scene, his career has also taken off; last year, he met actor/writer/comedian/stuntman "Steve-O" Glover at the First Avenue Club, 1550 First Ave. Glover, who is perhaps most well-known for his comedic stunts in the movie and TV series Jackass, has performed with comic Tom Green in the Starlite Theater in the Rivera Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

In an email interview, Glover said he was "beyond impressed" with Garland's material the second time they met. The two remained in touch, and recently Garland asked Glover for the opportunity to perform with him and Green. Garland met with the show's promoters, and the deal was set. He spent four nights earlier this month working in Vegas with the famous duo.

"Garland is a funny comic, but what's been winning everyone over more than anything is the enthusiasm and gratitude he has to be working with us," Glover said. "If you ask me, he's doing everything right."

Aspiring comedians may be apprehensive about dipping their toes into the unknown waters of performing on a stage.

"You have to in a way, baptize the newbies by fire, and toss them up on stage, and have them learn as they go," Garland said. "You want them to understand the dynamic of being comfortable on stage. Just go up there, talk into the mike, and have fun."

Scott Kading, the owner and talent booker for the Yacht Club and Gabe's, said he didn't expect the comedy scene to be what it is today.

"It caught us off-guard," Kading said. "We didn't think it would catch on so fast and become a big thing. It is way more fun than we expected — it is a pretty entertaining comedy scene. There was a need for it here; it's neat."

Audio: Tom Garland

"Hoarders"

"Mortuary"

What started off as open-mike nights for music or comedy is now primarily just for aspiring comedians. Local comedian Greg Gettle, who began doing comedy with Garland, has also developed quite a career. His destination? Chicago.

"It's crazy to see where everyone has gone since they started with such a small scene," he said. "I was so nervous my first open mike at the Penguin Comedy Club. Now, I'm more open on stage. I think the audience should get to know who you are as a person, and I try to be true to that."

He and local comedian Keegan Buckingham have gone on to be featured in weekly showcases by Chicago's Duck Duck Comedy Group.

These individuals carefully mold their craft in the hope of putting a smile on someone's face or creating an evening of fun. But some comedians said they are often left feeling disconnected from the world, feeling lonely — which they find can only be cured with one thing: laughter. Laughter is their way of communicating and connecting with the audience.

"What sets me apart from other comedians, I think, is that I pretty much only tell outrageous stories that are completely true, which nobody else would admit to," Glover said.

Comedy is a form of self-expression for these seasoned comedians. It is the raw, intimate, and vulnerable truth of who each is as a person. Bruce Jay — a professional comedian who is a coach and mentor to Garland and has previously been featured on "The Man Show" and "The Gong Show" — said he is passionate about comedy because of the honesty and personal insight each person brings to the stage.

"Sometimes, you can feel disconnected in life, and when you go to a show, you connect," Jay said. "There is passion, hatred, anger — everything. You're talking to the crowd, but what is the crowd? You can feel isolated and lonely … feel like you're the only one feeling these things, and when you watch another comedian or make your audience laugh, you connect with them."

If the audience is difficult, Jay said, he uses it to his advantage. He tries to immerse himself into a "conversation" with the audience.

"I like when people heckle me — it's fun, because I can have constructive play," Jay said. "You want to lose yourself. When you see a good comedy, you almost have an orgasm. You think, 'Oh, that was so fun I forgot all of my problems.' "

Each comedian admitted to having challenges.

"You have to be an attention whore with a personality and, I believe, a certain amount of self-hatred," Glover said.

Jay agreed, saying said it takes skill and craft to not only write jokes and punch lines but also to create a structural form worth watching.

"Comedy is a lot of self-expression; it has a poetic art element," he said. "There is a lot of therapy in comedy. It's all about negativity and anger, and that's kind of what comedy is. If you're mad, you want to shout and get it all out."

The best thing Garland and the other professional comedians advised new comedians to do is to go to the open-mike nights and try out new material. He also had some advice about handling some of comedy's biggest challenges

"The challenge is to stay consistent and have something new you're working on and that you're excited about," he said. "You have to break your routine every now and then. If you're not excited, then the crowd won't be."


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