Rated HAR, the monthly standup showcase, thrived at the Inferno.
Stalwart local venue Inferno Nightclub is shutting down after this weekend. Most of the media coverage of the closing has focused on Inferno as a goth club or on its sexy Leather and Lace nights. Those events were part the venue’s legacy, but let’s not forget the club’s history of charmingly eclectic programming: DJ nights, Are We Delicious? performances and some magical karaoke Wednesdays.
As a comedian, I’m grateful for the role Inferno played in the growth of Madison’s comedy scene.
The lion’s share of the credit for bringing comedy to Inferno goes to Tulin “La Bomba” Waters. Waters created Rated HAR, a monthly standup showcase that thrived at the Inferno.
“Inferno has always been a come as you are, judgment-free venue. Rated HAR was a comedy show where comics could feel comfortable pushing the envelope,” says Waters. They could have creative freedom without feeling the pressure of staying within any guidelines.”
The Comedy Club on State and the other open mics and showcases around Madison provide comics with great opportunities to perform, but Rated HAR quickly developed a reputation as the most experimental show in town. Comedians who were used to only doing seven- to 10-minute sets could try doing a 20- or 25-minute set.
"Inferno was a place that I went in and didn’t feel like the strangest person in the room. I loved it," says comedian Deon Green.
Inferno’s audience not only accepted the experimentation; it embraced it.
While the material at Rated HAR was freewheeling, it was also one of the more professional set-ups for a local comedy showcase. Waters paid to produce fliers and handbills that prominently featured headshots of the local comics. I once told her I didn’t understand that promotional angle. Conventional wisdom says to promote local comedy shows by pushing the overall show and downplaying the individual comedians — nobody cares about some non-famous, amateur comedians.
Waters told me she did it to make the comedians feel professional, that they deserved to be celebrated on a poster. That attitude carried through to payment: Most comedians make nothing when they perform at a local showcase. At most, they get gas money if they are from out of town. Waters paid every comic, even when the audiences were sparse and she was running the show at a loss.
The professional atmosphere mixed with the experimental vibe to create special shows.
“I featured for Madison comedy king/legend/dynamo Bryan Morris there. The transition from my humor to his is a bridge never traveled in the comedy world. I’m an uncomfortable psychopath who is all over the place. He’s a clean-cut precision comic who knows his pace, timing and cadence,” says comedian Ian John. “Mixing those two flavors of comedy is a bad recipe for a show, but Bryan killed that night, and so did I. It was oddly beautiful to me to have an audience and atmosphere so welcoming and open to the comedy each of us brought.”
Rated HAR was also the first local showcase to promote all-female comedy nights.
“The All Female Comedy shows were the most special for me personally because they were a first in Madison,” says Waters. “There was a sisterhood there, and to know these shows were always so well attended proved to me that female comics are wanted and needed.”
The success of Rated HAR opened the door for opportunities to merge comedy with other programming at Inferno. I opened for Sexy Ester’s CD release party there, in front of an audience that seemed confused but open to the idea that some dude was telling jokes between bands.
Mixing standup with other genres spurred comics to bring their best stuff. A comedian needs confidence and energy to get people to pay attention to standup in the middle of a burlesque show.
“When people ask me what the toughest night of my life was on stage, I tell them it was the time I had to follow a lady in a bee costume who did a slow-motion pole-routine to Blind Melon’s ‘No Rain,’” says comedian Chris Lay.
Waters has also found success booking her own comedy and burlesque combinations with her popular Les Cougars variety shows. “Because of this club, Les Cougars is already getting booked all over Wisconsin and will soon tour the Midwest.”
Inferno may be closing, but comedians will remember the venue for a long time.
“I haven’t done comedy for a long time but I was at the Inferno last weekend, and two separate people came up to me and told me they remember me and were fans of my comedy. That doesn't happen at other venues,” says comedian Nate Bjork.