Standups at Winedown (clockwise from top left): Joe Meeker, Emma Kennedy and David Schendlinger.
It’s Saturday night at Winedown on State Street. And audience members are grabbing cocktails and wine slushies before heading to the back room for the Winedown Comedy Showcase.
They look for the few open spots among the 50-ish chairs set up at tables in the tucked-away back room. Meanwhile, the comics look over their notes one last time. For some, like Kevin Schwartz, who regularly kills in short sets at the Comedy Club on State, this is a rare opportunity to do a longer, 15-minute set.
Schwartz writes whip-smart, delightfully dark one-liners: “Ever go shopping without a list and totally forget what you wanted to live for?” “I don’t always cry myself to sleep. I have insomnia.” A three-minute set of short, snappy jokes is relatively easy. Building a longer set takes organization and practice, and showcases like Winedown are invaluable to help Schwartz develop as a comedian.
Audiences have been steadily climbing for the event, which led producer Jake Snell to expand it from a monthly to bimonthly format (first and third Saturdays at 9 p.m.).
Madison has a strong local standup scene with an impressive number of open mics for a city of its size. The crown jewel is the Comedy Club on State’s Wednesday open mic, which is — no joke — one of the top comedy open mics in the entire country.
But open mics are for workshopping new jokes. They aren’t the places where comedians hone their craft by developing longer, polished sets.
That’s where the DIY comedy events come into play. In the quest for more stage time, comedians have become producers, putting on standup shows in bars, restaurants and art studios. The management at the Comedy Club on State hopes these shows will help keep talented comedians in Madison.
“Instead of having all these great comedians move away to a bigger city, with [local show producers’] help, we can have enough stage time so they can stay in Madison and improve,” says Comedy Club manager Joe Buettner.
Some showcases provide a traditional standup show, where comics do 10-minute sets. Comedy at 123 Doty (Great Dane Downtown, the last Sunday of the month, 9 p.m.) has been running in this format for more than a year. Producer Spencer Graham creates a welcoming space where comics who aren’t performing like to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. Comedy Club headliner Todd Barry made a surprise stop and watched the show when he was in town last July.
Nick Hart’s weekly Bring Your Own Therapy (Bright Red Studios, Thursdays, 10 p.m.) is a combination of showcase and open mic. The gallery space has a looser vibe, giving comics room to try weirder bits. That show also has had some famous drop-ins: Comedy legend Barry Crimmins, the subject of the documentary Call Me Lucky, did an hour-long set at Bring Your Own Therapy back in March.
Comedian Tulin Waters created Rated HER (The Frequency, first Fridays, 7 p.m.) as a place for female comedians to feel comfortable in a male-dominated scene. “I wanted a stage where you could express yourself as a woman without judgment or pressure,” says Waters. Rated HER highlights female standups and musicians, blended organically with Waters’ bawdy, enthusiastic hosting style.
The Merge (Glass Nickel East, third Saturdays, 10:30 p.m.), produced by the Monkey Business Institute, features a fusion of standup and improv. Host Sean Moore, who performs both types of comedy, wanted to see if he could join the two forms. The show opens with two standup sets followed by scenes inspired by the standup. For example, one show featured comedian Stefan Davis doing a bit about going home with a woman he’d just met.
“That led to the improvisers doing a retelling of A Christmas Carol,” says Moore. “An improviser played Stefan as Scrooge, visited by all of his past hook-ups.”
The Whoa Show by Anthony Siraguse and Matt Jordan (Broom Street Theater, various Saturdays) gives comics a chance to try unconventional material. They include topical news bits, sketches, video — almost anything a comic would want to try that can’t be done in a normal standup show. “We wanted a space for total creative freedom,” says Siraguse.
The local comics have a tremendous amount of love for each other. But sometimes audiences don’t want to see love. They want to see bitter hatred. For that, there’s Marty Clarke’s Big Diss Roast Battle (the Fountain, one Wednesday a month, 11 p.m.). Two comics take the stage. Each has written brutal jokes about the other comic. It’s raw, offensive, way-too-personal and hilarious.
Because keeping track of these shows can be a challenge, a group of comics launched LocalMadisonComedy.com as a resource for anyone interested in checking out a showcase. It features calendar listings and lineups.
“This is the best bunch of comics we’ve seen in a while,” says Buettner. “They have an opportunity to start something big that can be around for a long a time — a self-sustaining Madison comedy scene.”