- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009


At a recent comedy contest at Washington’s Madhatter tavern, a young comic found himself getting heckled repeatedly by a blonde sitting three feet away. “I couldn’t fight a girl,” he finally said.

“That’s right - you couldn’t fight a girl,” replied another heckler, to loud laughter.

It’s never good when the audience gets bigger laughs than the act. But that’s one of the hazards of open mic night, where young comedians go to polish their craft, take their lumps and realize their dreams.

In a recession, open mics serve another purpose - giving Washingtonians a good, cheap source of live entertainment. With wallets and purses shutting like bear traps, free laughs look pretty good.

“The D.C. comedy scene is the most untapped entertainment resource in the whole area,” said comedian Will Hessler. “Value-wise, it’s the greatest time you’re going to have, hands down.”

Aside from performing, Mr. Hessler helps manage Saturday’s open mic night at the Old Arlington Grill, located in the Arlington Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse. On May 2, a dozen or more local comics crowded the lobby, pacing and waiting to do their five to seven minutes.

Open mic nights come in many flavors. Some are first-come, first-served. Some are invitation-only. Many do not charge customers for cover or drinks. And a few, like Madhatter’s comedy night, offer cash prizes - at least enough to cover the bar tab - for the best performances.

Whatever the venue, the broad consensus is that Washington is fertile ground for comedy.

“D.C. audiences are a good gauge of where comedy is going,” said comedian Larry XL during a break emceeing the Laugh Riot show at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bethesda. “They’re very smart, very intelligent. D.C. is as fertile a place as any, with the exception of New York City.”

“I have not seen a New York comedian … come down here and not get it handed to them by a D.C. comic in a competition,” Mr. Hessler said.

The Laugh Riot in Bethesda, a paid Saturday night gig featuring four to five comedians, is run by Curt Shackelford, who also manages open mics at the Ri Ra Irish Pub in Arlington on Wednesdays and the Topaz Hotel at Dupont Circle on Thursdays.

Nearly every local comedian has at one time or another worked with the peripatetic and perpetually tan Mr. Shackelford, who runs his operation from a bright yellow car with the Web address www.StandupComedyToGo.com plastered on the sides. His shows are noted for offering cash prizes and T-shirts to audience members who tell the best jokes.

“The stand-up scene has exploded,” Mr. Shackelford said. “There are many more open mics and paid showcases. The Depression has made free comedy very attractive as a date option. ‘Dinner and a movie’ is now ‘dinner and a free comedy show.’ ”

Still, many local comedians mourn the loss of venues such as Wiseacre’s, a freewheeling Tysons Corner club that had a “sign up and perform” policy, and Dr. Dremo’s, a funky mom-and-pop dive in Arlington recently razed by developers.

“Now, the sole professional comedy club in the area is the Improv,” said Jake Young, a highly regarded comic who performs solo and as a member of the Geek Comedy Tour. “There’s a huge swath of talent and a lot of very promising young people doing stuff, but they don’t really have anywhere to go, so they have to find time where they can.”

Some comedians find themselves performing far beyond the D.C. nucleus. One new venue is Wednesday Night Comedy at Halftime, a roadside sports bar in White Plains, Md. On a recent night, more than 60 audience members watched the show, headlined by the legendary Fat Doctor, from closed-circuit TVs surrounding the bar.

The Halftime show is one of several run by a cheerful promoter who goes by the moniker the Hossman and whose shows often feature drop-by visits from national headliners like Tony Woods.

“A real comic will do comedy anywhere and everywhere,” he said.

Another hidden gem can be found in Temple Hills, tucked in a strip mall near the Rosecroft Raceway. Laugh Out Loud at Club Elite hosts Facebook on Thursdays, an open mic that is as raucous and side-splitting as Showtime at the Apollo. A DJ keeps the walls thumping between sets.

The show is managed by Eddie Bryant, who has performed on HBO, BET and the Starz Network. It’s “a family atmosphere,” he said. “All the comedians know each other, we all went to school together.”

“This has been a staple in the community,” said Lawrence Owens, the ball of energy who emcees the show. “The last four or five Thursdays, we’ve averaged 100 people.”

In words certain to cheer a comic’s heart, he adds, “No one’s here to heckle; they’re here to party.”

John K. Herr is a speechwriter and stand-up comedian whose stage name is Herricane.

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