September 11, 2019 News » Cover Story

A dive into the small but mighty Springs comedy scene 

Finding the funny

  • Maria Bay / CasaBay Photography

Under the dim yellow lighting of the Oskar Blues Grill & Brew basement, glasses clink, patrons chatter and laugh, the heavy scent of fried food wafts from crowded tables, and remarkably patient servers weave in and out of the chaos. It’s just past 9 p.m., and though the place looked busy when we walked in for dinner about three hours ago, now it’s practically wall-to-wall. Some locally beloved comedians have taken the stage for the venue’s weekly comedy open mic night, including Jonny Bratzveen and Brian Sullivan, and some newbies have had their turn at the mic too — with uh, varying degrees of success. They’ve waxed comedic about everything from kids and family to guns and politics, from drugs and sex to the habits of other comedians.

And now, after I have just begun to enjoy the humming weightlessness of a generous pour of the house red, emcee Austen Brinker calls my name from the open mic sign-up list, and that happy buzz bleeds out of me in an instant. I knew it was coming. I’ve been preparing my material and practicing for this moment for almost two months. But somehow it still catches me off guard. My entourage — a group of folks from work, plus my wife, mom and uncle, embarrassingly — clap and cheer, but all I hear is blood rushing through my ears as I walk the endless path past the packed tables and up to the microphone. I performed this routine for my wife in our living room earlier, and now I’m standing before 50 or more people, all staring up at me. By the looks on their faces, it seems they doubt I can make them laugh.

I doubt it too, honestly. But I take a deep breath anyway. “Hello everyone,” I say, forcing the waver of fear out of my voice. “Thanks for coming out tonight.”

As I wait for my turn at the mic that night, comedian Jonny Bratzveen tries to reassure me. He doesn’t promise I’ll do well (he’s seen enough first-time comedians flop), but he does promise I’ll have fun. The first laugh you get on stage, he says, hits you like heroin. It’s addictive. And after that first laugh, all you want to do is come back for more. He adds that the comedy scene is so supportive here that even if you bomb your first set, or every set after that, “no one will ever tell you to stop.”

Mark Rantal, a comedian who works with the RiP Improv Troupe at the Millibo Art Theatre (where I was working when I first met him), tells me that so many people want to try standup comedy because at some point in their lives they have made someone else laugh, and in the resulting glow of pride, they’ve thought to themselves: “I can do this.” 

Bratzveen and Rantal both have a point. It’s intoxicating to inspire a snort or a snicker in your friends, thanks to one of your own bad puns or a witty observation. But I never even considered trying standup comedy before my editor approached me about this story, before he suggested I experience the local comedy scene firsthand. As the next two months result in near panic attacks over the crafting of my routine — even knowing it will be both my first and last — I wonder why anyone would want to do this all the time. 

  • Maria Bay / CasaBay Photography

Maybe, I think, it’s the allure of “making it.” Maybe it’s the possibility of fame and fortune, a Netflix comedy special of your very own, the tantalizing hope of getting recognized on the streets. But as I talk to more local comedians, I find that the majority aren’t appearing at these open mics every week to “make it.” Colorado Springs doesn’t offer the opportunity for exposure that Denver might, or more ambitiously L.A. or New York — and everyone knows it — but it does boast a tightknit community that upends my expectations about these comedians and their motivation.

Melody Klema, co-founder of the new local women’s comedy troupe Clam Corp., along with Alyssa Townsend, has been performing comedy for about four years here in the Springs, and like many comedians she wanted to be a performer from a young age. “I always thought I would want to be a comedian and on the stage, or something like that,” she says. “So that always felt right.”

But she didn’t pursue that dream until she hit, in her words, a “quarter-life crisis” when she turned 25 and settled down in Colorado Springs. After seeking some help and guidance from established comedians in town, she set to writing. 

“It was kind of rough in the beginning,” she says. “Like it was not good comedy, you know, just like not knowing what to do, what to say, how to start from nowhere.”

But after her first open mic at the Zodiac Venue and Bar (an open mic that still occurs weekly, Mondays at 8 p.m.), she was invited to a comedy writing session that helped her solidify her first round of jokes. From there, she was hooked.

Comedian Ben Verbeck, part of the comedy collective You Got It Dude! and host of open mics at the Dab Lounge (Fridays, 8:30 p.m.) and Lulu’s Downstairs (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.), also knew he wanted to go into entertainment. He started doing comedy when he was living in Buffalo, New York, in 2004. “I knew that, like, I could make people laugh,” he says. “I never learned an instrument. So I felt like ... it would have been a much, much more difficult climb for me to get into entertainment with music, being that I was starting at zero. And in the end, with comedy, I was still starting at zero. But in my head, I was like, you know, I can tell a joke.”

Every comedian I met along this journey acknowledged that standup comedy proved more difficult than simply knowing how to tell a joke, but the difficulty didn’t deter them, and each has stuck around for their own reasons.

For Klema, it comes down to the community. She says that she has made lifelong friends since establishing herself on the scene here. Only three months after her first open mic in 2015, she started the Locals Till Last Call open mic at Gold Camp Brewery (First Saturdays, 8 p.m.), where she still brings in headlining talent to warm up the crowd, then opens the stage to all local comedians.

“We definitely connect, bond, really quickly as comedians,” she says. “And then we can not see each other for a long time and still feel close as people. Because you share a lot on stage. Sometimes the stage is the first place somebody will share, like, that they’ve been fired. You know, they haven’t told anybody else, including a spouse.”

Folks find refuge in their comedy and, through that, in the people who laugh with them about some of the worst things that have ever happened to them. It’s something that has fascinated me for a long time, how some of the funniest people are funny specifically because of the tragedy they have faced or the mental health issues they deal with. People often tell jokes to defuse tension, to make something less painful, to connect with people who feel the same. 

In hosting open mics, Klema can watch new comedians break out of their shells over time, perfect their routines, become more vulnerable with the audience. But the act of getting on that stage in the first place is a tremendous act of vulnerability, no matter the contents of your set.

Verbeck says, “Musicians have this, like, aura of mystery about them. And we [comedians] are vulnerable out there. It’s just us. We don’t — we’re not hiding behind other people on stage with us. We’re not hiding behind a light show. We’re not hiding behind dance moves. Which reminds me, I need to incorporate more dancing into my comedy.”

When I decide to take the plunge onto that stage, I know I can’t do it alone. I consult my much-funnier-than-me wife. I research the anatomy of a joke. I analyze the methods of my own favorite comedians. Basically, I go about it like a reporter. But I also reach out to the only people in town who I am sure can help me: Science Riot.

The folks who perform at Science Riot shows aren’t professional comedians. They’re largely STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) professionals, seeking out comedy to help them improve their communication and public speaking. Science Riot hosts workshops to get these people ready for the stage, so they can share their expertise and make people laugh along the way. I figure if they can teach scientists how to craft a standup set, they can teach a journalist, right?

  • Maria Bay / CasaBay Photography

The organization was founded by Niki Spahich and Kyle Sanders right here in Colorado Springs under the name Peer Revue. Now called Science Riot, it boasts chapters in 11 cities. Obviously there’s a recipe for success here. I send a message to their Facebook page, practically pleading for help. And bless them, they answer. 

Area producers Sonya Wilde and David Westmoreland, and coach Mark Rantal meet with me at the Welcome Fellow coworking space for two two-hour sessions, giving me a condensed version of the workshop they give their STEM professionals.

I tell these folks straight-up that I’m terrified, that I’ve got anxiety anyway, and I don’t know how to do that whole “people” thing. Let alone the “funny” thing. And I ask, hopeful, what kind of people show up to Science Riot workshops. Are they like me? 

“They are across the board,” Westmoreland says, “So we have some people who show up, and they will just open right up and say ‘I have a socialization issue’ or something like that. And you know, they’re really very geeky. But that works. They just have to be themselves and it works. And then we have people who are really outgoing, that are just ready to charge on the stage and everything in between, you know?” 

It gives me a bit of hope, which builds when Rantal suggests that standup comedy might actually help my anxiety, rather than make it worse. “Well [comedy is] a hell of a mental armor for the 21st century, too,” he says. “If you ever saw [The Late Show’s Stephen] Colbert’s sign-off after the 2016 elections, he has this beautiful line where he says, ‘We’re going to be here. We’re going to keep laughing, and having fun, and making jokes. Because it’s impossible to laugh and be afraid at the same time.’ And when you’re always looking at the world, trying to say, ‘Hey, what’s funny about this?’ It’s very difficult to also say, ‘Why should I be scared?’”

click to enlarge Melody Klema hosts open mics and trivia weekly. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • Melody Klema hosts open mics and trivia weekly.

That’s why, Wilde adds, so many people return to Science Riot after they’ve done it once. She points out that people in general are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death, but they come out of this on the other side, unscathed. No one has ever died via standup comedy. And the Science Riot crowds are generally more forgiving than your typical open mic audience because they’re in those seats to learn something. 

Wilde’s first set for Science Riot was about the ins and outs of being a software engineer. “And so, I’ve been back a couple of times,” she says. “I’ve talked about artificial intelligence in cars and in sex dolls. And I’ve talked about who can be in IT, you know, like, it’s all been about the educational piece, and finding the funny in it.” 

This, she says, is not how the majority of the comedy scene works. Standup comedy and Science Riot may share a method, but they do not share a purpose. Open mics aren’t meant to educate. “[The audience] changes the way they write,” Rantal says. “It changes the freedom with which they put their ideas down, because they go, ‘Oh, I can’t mess up. Because if I do mess up, they’re open. They’re accepting. They want to hear not just funny, they want to hear my expertise.’”

I don’t have any expertise, I tell them, nor will I have a built-in forgiving audience at Oskar Blues. Thankfully, they assure me, I don’t need either.

Comedy night at Oskar Blues is just one of many comedy open mics and events that occur weekly and monthly around town. Klema, Verbeck, Nene Rodriguez and Jonny Bratsveen recently launched Comedy Springs, a Facebook group that keeps track of open mics and other opportunities in the area every week in an effort to boost engagement in the local comedy scene and reach more comedians. Klema tells me that every open mic has its own mood and flavor, so sharing all of them is important to people who are just learning the ins and outs of the scene.

The bars and breweries, for instance, provide a low-pressure opportunity to try out or refine new material, with folks just distracted enough not to judge you too hard, but not so distracted that they’ll miss your whole set.

“And it’s a really interesting dynamic, doing shows with cannabis,” Verbeck says. His weekly open mics at the Dab Lounge cannabis club bring in a good, consistent crowd of comedians and Dab Lounge members. “Everybody thinks like, ‘Oh, they’re all stoned, I bet they laugh way harder than a drunk crowd.’ But when people get stoned, they tend to more think like, ‘You know, I never thought about it that way.’ And they enjoy the jokes on a deeper level, where someone who’s drunk is like — you get more of the loud, boisterous laughter from drunk people.”

Perhaps the largest open mic you’re likely to find in the area, though, is at Loonees Comedy Corner, the Springs’ only comedy club. Loonees was founded by Jeff Valdez in 1989, and it’s still going strong under the ownership of Erik Hawkinson, who started working there as a bartender in 2005, and has owned the place since 2009. Though not a comedian himself, Hawkinson has found that he is well-suited to running a club, tracking down talent and hosting events.

Aside from the Pikes Peak Center and Fine Arts Center, which occasionally bring in well-known comedians like Tim Allen, Paula Poundstone and John Mulaney, Loonees is the only venue in town that consistently hosts touring comedy acts — every weekend, no less.

click to enlarge Ben Verbeck (far right) has too much fun at the Lulu’s open mic he hosts. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • Ben Verbeck (far right) has too much fun at the Lulu’s open mic he hosts.

Beyond that, Loonees also hosts monthly or semi-monthly open mics (next will be Oct. 3, 7 p.m.). Both Verbeck and Klema say that the Loonees open mic is where the hobbyist comedians and their more goal-oriented counterparts go to try out their material. It’s a more formal environment than the bars, with a strict time limit and often 30 to 35 different comedians taking the stage in the 200-capacity venue.

According to Hawkinson, Loonees occasionally gets accused of not looking out for the locals by not giving local comedians headlining gigs, but he says bringing in touring acts is necessary not just for a thriving business, but for a thriving comedy scene. “I mean, the local scene here in the Springs is great,” he says. “I love the fact that, that there’s so many people trying to do it, and you know, some are succeeding, some are failing, but there’s a lot of them. And that’s going to happen with anything that you do.”

But the variety of open mics available in town, he says, helps people scale up based on their experience. Someone who’s ready for an open mic at a brewery may not yet be ready for a hosting gig at Loonees. “There’s tons of variance in it,” he says. “And, you know, if it pushes them to do better, great. And some people, if they realize maybe that’s not the thing for them, that’s good, too.”

I consider the Loonees open mic when planning my own comedy debut, but the pressure sounds like a bit too much for me. In the end, I choose Oskar Blues because it’s close to home and it’s on a good night for me, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. All the comedians I talk to say that’s a solid place to start, but from what I can tell there’s not really a bad place to start. And if you’re going to do this, you might as well jump in feet-first somewhere.

More than anything, I want a friendly crowd. 

click to enlarge Loonees Comedy Corner owner Erik Hawkinson. - ALISSA SMITH
  • Alissa Smith
  • Loonees Comedy Corner owner Erik Hawkinson.

So tonight, as I stand in front of the packed Oskar Blues basement, eyes flicking over the audience like I’m some kind of prey animal surrounded by a pack of rabid, starving wolves, I try to smile, and I try to remember my routine, and I try to remember Bratzveen’s comment — that the first laugh is like heroin. I try to remember Wilde’s reassurance — that no one has ever died via standup comedy.

I’m wearing a tacky collared shirt, my hair is short, and I have a general air of homosexuality about me, so as a lead-in, I tell the crowd: “I don’t want to alarm you, but I am, in fact, a lesbian.” Thankfully, someone chuckles from the back of the bar. It’s probably my mom, but it does help to hear a laugh. I relax a little. I keep going, keep talking, try to hit all the beats my wife told me to hit. And mom isn’t the only one laughing after a while. The whole bar hasn’t leapt to its feet for a standing ovation by the time I’m done, but they laugh. And, God, I was certain the second I put that microphone to my lips that they wouldn’t.

I don’t die, it turns out. Wilde was right about that. But would I call this feeling heroin? I’d say it’s more like alcohol. The first laugh you get hits you with a fuzzy heat, soothing and distracting. It gets you out of your head, out of your body. I might not get addicted to it myself, but I can see why so many do.

After my set, I walk shaking back to my seat with a renewed sense of respect for the folks who do this every week, who write and perform and work and grind in order to — to do what? To “make it?” Maybe. Or maybe just to make a connection, an observation, to make people laugh. The world’s a big, scary place, and we all deal with so much shit — but it’s true: It’s tough to be scared when you make an effort to find the funny in it.

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