Making it big in the valley's comedy scene is no laughing matter
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday,September 8, 2005
In a corner of a packed sports bar, beneath a neon Captain Morgan sign and a blank TV monitor, Erik Miller steps up to the mic and launches into his regular Friday night standup routine at Chilly Bombers Bar & Grill in northwest Phoenix.
"Let's keep it going for John Hyatt," Miller says, extending the standard high-five to the comic who just finished before him -- in this case, a nervous, heavyset first-timer who, in desperation, closed his three-minute set by dropping to the floor to impersonate a man dozing off in the shower, spent, after experiencing the famed stimulation of an Herbal Essence shampoo.
"That's the worst -- you take a stage dive and nobody laughs. Chirp! Chirp!" Miller says, sounding more antagonistic than sympathetic. Then Miller, a thirtysomething part-time comic and full-time loan officer for JP Morgan-Chase, who "just had a baby," he says from the stage . . . pause . . . "two years ago," dives into his act.
"Ever get up in the middle of the night and step on a Lego? You suddenly forget every swear word you ever knew! 'Mother fetcher! Fruity! Fruity Legos!'"
It's mostly wife, job and kids jokes, but the sports-bar crowd eats it up. ("You wanna stay cuddly," he says later. "I always tell the new guys that.")
Normally at this, the weekly standup comedy showcase he runs at Chilly Bombers for a split of the cheap $3 cover charge, Miller saves the best for last -- meaning his own 20-minute set.
But tonight, following a trio of bombing rookies capped off with Hyatt's performance -- which Miller considered particularly weak -- he rushed on second to last, to keep the standing-room-only crowd from bolting early.
"I'm not gonna let anyone come in here and take a crap on this room," he says afterward, out on the patio of the bar overlooking the traffic on West Bell Road. "I've worked too hard to build this show into what it is. And it's easy to spoil. A few bad comics in a row, and you can feel the energy level just drop."
Miller, who's been kicking around the Valley standup scene for more than four years, makes no bones about why he started running the amateur showcases at Chilly Bombers last October and, beginning in August, an additional Saturday night showcase at Big Daddy's in northwest Phoenix.
"I started this show to get stage time for myself, to get better at what I do," he says levelly. "I really wanna be the number one guy in this town. But I can't be the only person in a show every week. So it's one of those weird things where in order to do something really selfish, like become the number one comic, you almost have to be willing to help other people make it as a comic, too. So that they can help put on a good show, to make people want to follow you."
Along with Sean Dillingham, a Valley comic who's been running shows for the past two years at a comedy club in Old Town Scottsdale called the Comedy Spot, where Dillingham also gives himself the primo stage time, Miller is both envied and reviled among the clique-ish standup community for his naked ambition.
"Those two guys are the most hated comics in Phoenix," says Josh McDermitt, producer of the Tim and Willy show on KNIX and a local standup many in the know consider poised to make it big. "Most of the comics I talk to feel they're both on a power trip."
On the other hand, McDermitt allows, you can't fault a comic for trying to rise above the growing pack of aspiring standups here.
With new comedy nights springing up every month at various Valley nightclubs, amateur standup is quickly becoming the new karaoke.
On almost any given night of the week, you can find some kind of open-mic night, comedy showcase or improv workshop going on around the city. If it's Wednesday, it's amateur night at JJ's Sports Cantina in Scottsdale, Haus Murphy's German restaurant in downtown Glendale and, starting September 14, the Tupelo Tap Room in central Phoenix. Once a month on Thursdays, the Comedy Spot hosts Gay Comedy Night. Fridays offer open-mic nights at Chilly Bombers and Mardi Gras in lower Scottsdale, or improv comedy at the nearby Theater 168. Saturdays, it's Miller's other showcase at Big Daddy's or the Ahwatukee Comedy Club at the Grace Inn. And Sundays feature performances by improv troupes at Mardi Gras, as well as another open-mic night at the Comedy Spot.
Still, the big room in town, the Tempe Improv -- the Valley's only A-class venue, the room Jerry Seinfeld picked as the first place to return to standup after wrapping up nine seasons of his wildly successful sitcom -- remains a frustratingly elusive stage to local comics.
Valley comedians complain the Improv's influential owner, Dan Mer, seldom looks around his own backyard for talent, preferring to jet around the country scouting out openers for the national headliners he regularly brings to the club.
"Dan Mer doesn't think there's anything special in Phoenix," says Miller, who, like most local comics, paints Mer as a kind of workaholic daddy who won't pay enough attention to his own kids -- no matter how many little shows they put on themselves.
"And yet, if Dan Mer called me last night and said, 'I need you to open up for the headliner tomorrow,' I'm there," he adds quickly. "I'd give up being a star here, at my own showcase, for three minutes at the Tempe Improv. That's how important that room is."
Miller pauses to shake hands with a few Chilly Bombers regulars, who compliment him on another laugh-out-loud set and tell him he's getting too good for the place.
"If Mer wanted to, it's really in his power to make a star out of any comic in Phoenix," Miller adds. "But I don't think that's his way."
"I did a show at the Dodge Theatre, it was awesome! I signed my first boob. I was like, 'Dear Jack . . . '"
-- Erik Miller, standup comic and showcase runner
It's Thursday night at the Tempe Improv, and Dan Mer is right where he usually is on the club's first business night of the week: standing alone on the balcony overlooking the 450 sold-out seats below, laughing at the jokes of his star headliner -- for tonight until Sunday -- that being Alonzo Bodden, latest season winner of NBC's Last Comic Standing reality show.
In the 12 years since Mer took over the Tempe branch of the Improv franchise, in the same second-story loft in the Cornerstone Mall on University Drive it still occupies today, the club has gained a reputation as a must-play destination for all the big-name standups. Better than the Hollywood Improv, most say.
Besides being chosen by King Jerry as the site of much of his 2002 documentary Comedian, the Tempe Improv has served as the backdrop of numerous HBO specials and concert DVDs by the likes of Dennis Miller, David Spade, Ray Romano, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo and others.
Part of the reason the big guns come to the Tempe Improv is obviously Mer himself. Unmarried, with no kids, Mer clearly gives 110 percent into running his topnotch supper club ("a lost art," he says). At 43, Mer's friendly, rounded face, framed by swept-back wavy locks clinging desperately to a receding hairline, is creased with the laugh lines of someone who's spent fully half of his life around professional comedians.
But another big reason the pros like Mer's club is simply the crowd. The Valley has always been a great test market for products, because the city's population draws from all parts of the country. And comedians have found that what gets laughs here will play virtually anywhere.
"We're sort of the Peoria of comedy," Mer says, referring to the oft-referenced Middle America melting pot that the Valley's population comes closest to embodying. "I've been to clubs in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. But I just think the 8 o'clock Saturday night audience here is the best in the country. And I've got nothing to do with that!"
But there's a downside to having a top comedy outpost in an area like Phoenix, Mer says. And it's the main reason he admits he doesn't spend much time scouting around the Valley for talent.
"Because we have such a big club and such a great reputation, standup has really grown in this Valley as something to aspire to," he says. "But there's too many people here trying it who have no business doing comedy."
Mer says Phoenix is more infested with bad comics than any other city he's seen. "It's the most glutted market anywhere. I must get 600 calls a month. I got tapes stacked this high. And most of them are so bad they couldn't get work at any professional club. It's not that my standards are so high."
Shunned by the Improv, Mer says these rejects then go on to start their own standup showcases at sports bars and dives he says it "breaks [his] heart" to venture into.
"Sometimes I'll go in them, because if a person can make you laugh there, despite playing to a bunch of drunks who'd rather be watching sports, well, then they're gonna be that much better when they get an audience that's attentive and there for comedy."
Most of the time, though, Mer knows what he's going to see before he even sets foot in the door.
"What we've got here is all these frustrated, quote-unquote 'comics' around town, and you get all these horrible comedy nights going up," he says.
"But they're not comedy nights. They're failed-comics nights. And they're just filthy, and they're unfunny. They're unwatchable. Sometimes it's like a train wreck -- you can't take your eyes off of it.
"It might be a cheap evening of entertainment, in a perverse way," Mer says. "But it bothers me. Because if someone goes to one of these things and thinks that's what a standup show is, then they're not gonna come to my club."
"Some people say you can't teach funny. I dunno. Can brain surgery be taught? Is comedy harder than brain surgery?"
-- Tim Davis, standup comic and professional "comedy coach"
In an effort to give the unfunny masses some place to practice and improve, Mer tried something a couple years back that he now regrets: the comedy school, which has since mushroomed into a bit of a cottage industry for some Valley businessmen -- particularly Mer's own former in-house standup coach.
"We had a guy who used to MC for us, named Tony Vicich," Mer says. "He'd heard about a guy in San Francisco doing this comedy class, and thought it'd be a good idea to start one here. I thought it was a good idea also at the time, 'cause I thought, 'Hey, nurturing the art form is what we're in business to do. Maybe we'll develop someone that we'll end up using.'"
Instead, Mer says, Vicich's comedy classes at the Improv became a haven for wanna-be funnymen to strut across the Improv's stage on off nights and be "as obscene, as racist and misogynistic" as they wanted to be.
"It was a boys' club," Mer says. "It became one of these things where he wasn't having any standards -- just pay me your money, say what you want to say. And I was like, 'This is not what I got in this business to support.'"
After Mer pulled the plug on the comedy classes, Vicich created his own Web site at comedyschools.com and began teaching classes at Entertainment Alley in Scottsdale, where he now charges comic hopefuls $375 for a beginner five-week course -- and another $375 for the six-week advanced classes.
Many of the better comics in town swear by Vicich's teachings. "Tony doesn't say, 'We'll teach you how to be funny,'" says Josh McDermitt, who's worked at the Improv and has also taken Vicich's course. "Tony says, 'We'll teach you how to bring out of yourself what you think is funny.'"
But Mer feels Vicich has become little more than a snake-oil salesman, who he says is "exploiting people's hopes and dreams" by promising a career in comedy.
"I think Tony started with good intentions," Mer says. "But he's just taken it to a whole 'nother level. That's why I feel responsible for this, to tell you the truth. I feel like we've created this monster, that's now got nowhere to go."
"Most people are not born into great standup comedy families. Very few standup comics go, 'I'm a standup comic, my father was a standup comic. My father's mother was a standup comic . . .'"
-- Tony Vicich, standup comic and comedy instructor
There's something funny about the crowd funneling into the main ballroom of the Scottsdale Plaza Resort on this early Saturday morning. A short, balding man with a lazy lower lip wearing a Herman's Hermits 2002 tour tee shirt looks like he's wandered in off the set of a broad Fox sitcom. Another man looks like a fitter, more compact reincarnation of Chris Farley, and over there, a young woman in a red plaid skirt and white halter is flaunting cleavage fit for Playboy topped with a face, adorned with spiky hot-pink hair and funky horn-rims, straight out of Mad magazine.
It's opening day of the weekend-long Great Southwest Comedy Convention, and Tony Vicich, the event's organizer, is rallying all the would-be comics in the room to follow their dreams to be funny.
"As of today, we live in an incredible time and place," Vicich tells the 120 attendees scattered about the room, who've each paid between $100 for the single day's lectures and $350 for the entire weekend, including lodging.
"The industry is here. There are comedy clubs. There are television shows. People always need to laugh. And they need you."
Lecturer after lecturer, the comic hopefuls are delivered variations of the same message. "We don't need another Robin Williams," says improvisation teacher Jef Rawls. "We need you. You have your own voice."
Vicich admits his convention, just like his courses, faults on the side of feel-good encouragement. But he says that's precisely what local comics don't get enough of from the likes of Mer, Dillingham and the others in charge of Valley comedy stages.
"Something along the way has stopped you from expressing yourself," he tells the crowd from the podium. "We lose great comedy voices because of the adversarial way we have to enter this business."
It's not all positive stroking, however. Throughout the weekend, the hard realities of the funny business are also stressed. Booking agent David Tribble, armed with decades of experience booking comics for road gigs -- where the bigger money is -- takes the podium and dashes everyone's delusions of grandeur.
"You're doing something anyone can do -- make people laugh," he says. "It's not like you need to learn an instrument."
Still, by the end of the day, almost everyone is even more jazzed than before about pursuing a comedy career. A sign-up sheet for an open-mic competition is presented in the resort lobby, and 64 people enlist to do their three-minute set in front of their peers for a chance at a $1,000 cash prize.
It should be a tough crowd. Fellow comics tend to critique more than crack up, and the $5.50 price on domestic beers in the back of the room is keeping anyone from really loosening up.
Still, as the crowd files back into the ballroom after dinner, and the comics begin what seems to be an interminable succession of fat jokes, ethnic jokes, middle-age jokes and Wal-Mart greeter impersonations, there's a lot of love in the room. Even the occasional full-scale meltdowns get sympathetic laughs and supportive applause.
Colleen Purtle, a 20-year-old communications major at ASU whom many local comedy-watchers consider the best female standup in the Valley -- a tag she doesn't particularly care for -- says there's a kind of "comedy fraternity" among Tony Vicich's students.
"We're all like a family," Purtle says, "and it's a really nice community that Tony has built. If you go to a comedy show, you can totally pick out who's from Tony's classes."
Some say there are distinct cliques in the Valley comedy community, between the Improv elite, the Comedy Spot regulars, Erik Miller's west-siders and the Vicich crew, who typically work out at the Mardi Gras on East McDowell Road in Scottsdale.
But Purtle says that school lunchroom mentality comes more from the club and showcase runners than the comics themselves.
"I see it, but it's more with the people in charge, the higher-ups," she says. "That's where all the rivalry bull crap comes from. The people who are actually performing really don't care. As long as they're getting on a stage somewhere."
"I'd love to see ballet have to deal with the audiences you get at comedy shows. 'Nice tights! Here, see if you can dance on these marbles!' You don't get that at ballet."
-- Nick Tarr, standup comic and entertainer
In Valley comedy circles, the name Sean Dillingham is like Harry Potter's Voldemort -- the name that must not be spoken.
Most local comics preface their comments on Dillingham with the qualifier, "Um, off the record?" Even Dillingham himself has lately been going under the name Dillin.
But Nick Tarr, one of the city's few full-time comics, best known for his high-profile gig as "Joe Arizona" for the ill-fated Proposition 201, which aimed to put slot machines at racetracks in 2002, pulls no punches when talking about the comic turned club boss.
"He's a control-freak Nazi, who really doesn't give a rat's ass about the local comedy scene," Tarr says, unflinchingly. "He has actually terrorized local comics, threatened them, saying, 'You play anywhere other than my stage, and I'll make sure you never play Arizona again.' Not that he has that kind of power."
Dillingham, who initially agrees to an interview, then calls back two hours later to decline further participation in the story, says he likes to think of his club as being in direct competition with the Improv and no one else. And it's true that the Comedy Spot, although less than a third the size of the Improv, is the only other club in the Valley that regularly books national headliners, usually at half the cover charge of an Improv show.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Dillingham says by phone, "but unfortunately, there's really not a comedy scene in Arizona. There's the Comedy Spot, there's the Improv, and there's Laffs in Tucson. Those are the comedy clubs, that's the comedy scene, and that's all I can tell you."
But comics say Dillingham's definition of the Valley comedy scene suddenly expands whenever he hears about one of them playing any of the other comedy nights in town.
"He takes that position with people, where even if you're gonna play a place like Haus Murphy's or you're gonna play the Ahwatukee Comedy Club -- anything that might even be remotely considered competition -- you're not going to play his venue," says another experienced Valley comic, who'll only comment on Dillingham anonymously. "He feels if he's gonna give you stage time to develop your ability as a comic, he doesn't want you to take your audience anywhere else."
Such rules might be agreeable to some if it was possible to make anything beyond gas money by working exclusively at any one club.
Unfortunately, the pay at comedy clubs is dismal. Mer says he typically pays openers at the Improv only $50, which comics say Dillingham usually matches, although some say they've played the Comedy Spot for $25. Erik Miller divvies up the door fee at Chilly Bombers and Big Daddy's among the comics, which he says on even a packed night can amount to only $20 for some of the acts.
Even if one does manage to get on Dillingham's good list, Tarr says, the club can't offer enough repeat gigs to make it a comic's sole home.
"He booked me last year for the Gay Comedy Night, and it was fine, sold out," says Tarr, who also happens to be one of the Valley's better-known gay comedians. "But when it came around to booking me again, he was like, 'Okay, you can't do any Gay Comedy Nights a month before or a month after.'"
Chris McLennan, who together with her husband Jim organized a yearlong series of comedy contests at The Sets in Tempe called the Comedy SlamFest, originally started the showcases out of protest to Dillingham's and Mer's domination of the local comedy scene -- that, and to give her son the aspiring comic, Robert Fata, more stage time.
She says she made peace with Dillingham once he began holding regular open-mic nights at the Comedy Spot.
Even though the Sunday night slot is a dreaded "bringer" show, where comics have to bring at least five paying friends to get onstage -- often resulting in a slanted competition where the comic with the most friends gets the most laughs -- McLennan says she's grateful for any stage that opens up. Particularly one with good lighting, good sound and a real red brick wall -- the mark of a classic comedy club -- which she used to have to replicate beyond the billiard and Texas Hold'em tables at The Sets.
"Most of these places are a place where comedy happens," she stresses. "But Sean's is a real comedy club."
McLennan is assured that no matter what local comics may say about Sean Dillingham, any one of them would secretly love to play his room.
"It's his vision of a professional comedy club setting," she says. "And like him or not, it's a good one."
"I always appreciate Thursday crowds. I like it when people are getting a jump start on the weekend: 'Screw it, I've got sick days this month!'"
-- Mark Cordes, standup comic and King of Corporate
If battling with other neurotics all itching to mainline laughs at nothing-paying showcases run by egomaniacal puppet masters doesn't sound like the life for you, there's always big money to be made in Phoenix in the form of corporate comedy.
Meet Mark Cordes, 50, with a balding head, trim gray beard and the paunch of a well-fed executive.
He's got jokes about all of the above, which makes him a smash hit at all the conventions, national sales meetings and award banquets that fill his calendar. "I used to be skinny in high school," he says in his act. "I took that stuff to help you gain weight. It should say on the label: 'This could take 30 years to kick in!'"
The former real estate salesman caught the standup bug at an amateur comedy night in 1985, when a scrawny kid named David Spade brought down the house at a Paradise Valley bar. By '88, Cordes had already honed his act well enough to get in at the just-opened Improv, where the owners were still hungry for local talent.
But Cordes' big break came when some executives caught his act and asked him if he'd consider entertaining at corporate conventions and trade shows.
Before long, he had found his niche. Unlike some younger comics, Cordes had no qualms about toning down his material for politically correct corporate functions. "I really found it to be a true test of funny," he says. "Because you can't just go to the shock humor for an easy laugh."
Since Phoenix and Scottsdale are such favored destinations for so many corporate affairs, Cordes quickly found himself on the receiving end of a stream of peachy offers.
"A lot of times, after I do a month straight of corporate stuff, I can't wait to get back in the Improv and spew out all the stuff I wanna say," he says, laughing. "But it pays really well, and they take really good care of you. It's pretty cool to go to Maui for four days on someone else's dime and come home with a nice check." This fall, he says, he's got another expense-paid gig coming up -- in Tahiti.
Cordes, who lives with his wife in Scottsdale -- when he's not chilling out in his cabin in Payson -- says he's now able to command between $3,500 and $10,000 for an hour show at corporate functions. "Sometimes I have to explain to people, 'You're not paying me for the hour. You're paying me for the 19 years of learning how to get good enough at this to have you call me up and ask me to do that hour.'"
Around the Valley comedy scene, everyone envies Cordes' action.
"I'd love to be up there in the Mark Cordes area," says Nick Tarr. "That's easy-peasy, doing corporate gigs? They're the best. I mean, bar nights are tough.
"But he's also one of them," Tarr adds. "He's 50, been married twice, plays golf. So they're very comfortable with him. I did a corporate gig a while back, where I told the vice president of the company I was gay, and he had no problem. The president pops into the room in the middle of my set, just hears the word 'gay,' and he doesn't wanna pay me. I'm like, 'I'm sorry, you really need to pay!'"
To stay working full-time, Tarr resorts to acts of comedy the more edgy comics in town look down on. For a price, Tarr will do comic telegrams or play a clown at kids' birthday parties.
"If I'm getting paid to do something, I'll tumble for you," Tarr says, adding that right now, his big gig is playing at Valley school assemblies, promoting water conservation.
"It's amazing to me how reluctant comics are to treat this as a professional small business," Tarr says. "Because you can make money, if you are motivated to get out there and network, put a great package together and market yourself. I'm making a full-time living as an entertainer. Can the guys who criticize me for selling out because I'll dress up as Pee-wee Herman say the same thing?"
"Real close friend of mine at work has Crohn's and colitis. I want to go back to work with a gun. And I wouldn't shoot anybody, I just want to point it at him to watch his bag fill up. 'Hey, Jason.' 'Wha?' Fwwppt!"
-- Josh McDermitt, standup comic and morning radio show producer
As the 64-comic showcase at the Great Southwest Comedy Convention drags into its second hour, 29-year-old native Phoenician Jon Jesmer manages to rise from the pack with some distinctively Phoenix-centric observational comedy.
"If we didn't have immigration, who in the hell would buy your daughter's '85 Escort with the 300,000 miles and the pro-choice bumper stickers when she graduated high school?" he says from the ballroom stage. "I live with these guys in west Phoenix. I know they don't put those stickers on themselves. 'Yo, Vato, I got something to show you: "Keep U.S. out of my uterus!" Huh? What do you think?'"
In the end, even though he makes the top 10 cut, Jesmer doesn't win the $1,000 grand prize in the finals the following night. That prize goes to Ken Kaz, a writer on the new local AZTV cable comedy show Live . . . On Tape! featuring yet another motivated comic, John Waldron.
But Jesmer, along with Josh McDermitt, who performed in the showcase as a non-contestant, comes away from the convention an even bigger winner. Mad TV cast member Bobby Lee, on hand at the convention to school the crowd on the horrors of doing live sketch comedy on television, winds up being so impressed by Jesmer's and McDermitt's three minutes, he invites the two out to L.A. to help get them time at all the A-clubs: the Comedy Store, the Laff Factory and the Hollywood Improv, where Lee is supposed to have connections -- they can only hope.
"We're tentatively set to go out there in mid-September, to do some shows and be kind of under his wing," says Jesmer, who currently tends bar at The Buzz in north Scottsdale. "He said he could definitely help us out, with getting us agents and getting the right people to come out and see us."
For McDermitt, who's always felt Phoenix is just a practice grounds for entertainers before moving to L.A., getting out of town seems like the only way to make it big.
"Nobody's gonna get a TV show from Phoenix," McDermitt says. "You gotta be out there."
Still, the more experienced players say L.A. is not all it's cracked up to be. Mark Cordes says, true, there are more clubs. "But it's the old 90-10 rule: 10 percent of the comics are making 90 percent of the money."
Dan Mer has seen local comics he turned down -- especially those with a comedy school diploma from Tony Vicich -- take off in a huff to misguidedly try their luck in Hollywood.
"Some of these people get their hopes up, and they fly to Hollywood, and there's nothing for them," he says. "They can't even get a job at Starbucks. And they ruin their lives."
Chris McLennan, who after running four seasons of SlamFests now says she has the names of between 150 and 200 local comics in her database, can think of a more self-preservationist reason to create a thriving comedy scene in Phoenix.
"All of these people have severe, incredible issues," says the woman who's probably seen more amateur Valley comics in the past year than anyone. "Some of them tell you what their issues are in their comedy: 'I'm fat.' 'I'm an alcoholic.' 'My mother is a lesbian.' 'My father used to beat us.' Or the big one: 'I've got an ego that's so big I can't stand it unless I'm in front of an audience that's cheering at me!'"
McLennan has seen some comics with issues that simply can't be made to sound funny. "Oh, hell yeah!" she says. "We've got people that have really, really bad problems that are seriously not funny."
But she also shudders to think what the city would be like if the 200 people in her database who actually can joke about their lives were suddenly left to roam the streets and nightclubs without a microphone and a spotlight to turn what they're feeling into entertainment for others.
"These people need to hear laughs," she says. "It's like an addiction to them.
"Can you imagine if none of these people had a stage to go on and get that fix?"