The Rise of College Town Comedy

Comedy Features
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More than any other creative discipline, garnering recognition as a comedian usually means you live in one of two places: New York or L.A. If you don’t call either city home, move to one fast, because you’re not going to make it in middle America. Chicago has a rich tradition that’s risen out of The Second City, but as far as opportunities to “make it” in comedy go, nowhere can compare to the nation’s two biggest markets.

But now more than ever, comedy is flourishing in and around small-town universities. The Internet has opened up the world of comedy to those who aren’t established in the big city brick-and-mortar scenes, and though relocating to New York or L.A. still might be viewed as all but a necessity, the hopefuls making the move are more polished, savvy and in tune with what it means to be a comedian than ever before. Even in the South—which most people associate with crass, regional redneck humor that has no place in the world of legitimate comedy—more and more students and aspiring comedians are turning to comedy as a creative outlet and making things happen on a grassroots level. At least for a little while, New York can wait.

The Underwear Party

Your mother may have told you to picture the audience in their underwear when you played a munchkin in your grade school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, but the performers of the Underwear Comedy Party stand-up show in Athens, Georgia don’t need any advice for curbing stage fright; half of the audience actually was in their underwear.

On Monday, April 21, Joe Pettis, an Atlanta-based comedian, brought the Underwear Comedy Party, a touring comedy show he hosts in different cities throughout the Southeast that showcases stand-ups wearing nothing but underwear, to Athens’ Go Bar. The venue has a small stage and the reflection of a disco ball cascades across the performers’ faces as they fill their five-minute time slots with jokes about their failed relationships, their love for smoking certain substances and the financial woes that result from an English degree. For some, it’s their first time doing stand-up comedy; for others it’s part of their weekly routine; and almost half of the audience consists of the other seven performers, who sit or stand in their underwear, waiting for his or her turn to brave the stage.

Part of the audience is Jason Flynn, a senior at the University of Georgia who also hosts a comedy show called Garage Sale Open Mic at Go Bar every first and third Monday of the month. Tonight, however, he’s handed the venue’s reigns over to Pettis and his Underwear Comedy Party. Flynn is dressed for the occasion, of course, and recognizes the need to support fellow underground comedians. “It’s a pretty close knit community,” he says. “Most of the time the audience at shows consists of people who have performed or will perform at the same show at some point.”

Though events like The Underwear Party might not be drawing huge crowds outside of the comedy community, its participants aren’t deterred. Like any other artistic discipline—and especially with those performed in public—comedy is all about getting reps on stage. Even if there aren’t innumerable venues or a general interest in seeing live comedy, sometimes you just need to make it happen, and in Athens aspiring comics are doing just that. But Athens isn’t alone, and neither is the Go Bar within the creative-minded college town.

Location, Location, Location

Less than a mile away from Go Bar, there are several venues that regularly host comedy shows, including 40 Watt, Walker’s Pub and Coffee, Flicker Theatre and Bar, The Caledonia Lounge and The Pub at Gameday. Although primarily known for its music culture after well-known bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s put Athens on the national map, the community is naturally supportive of all the creative arts, including comedy.

“Athens is a town that supports a lot of creative work,” says Lawson Chambers, an Athens-based comedian and student at the University of Georgia. “I think you need to be in a community of creative people for it to work this way.”

Samm Severin, an Atlanta-based comedian who got her start studying creative writing in Milledgeville, Georgia, agreed that a community supportive of the arts creates a place for comedy to thrive.

“I think the thing about a college town or a small town like Athens is that the interest in the arts is usually already cultivated,” she says. “And it’s mostly young people where everyone is still young enough not to be afraid to start doing something new.”

Pettis tours the Underwear Comedy Party across the country through college towns like Athens. One such stop is Asheville, North Carolina, which, like Athens, is known for embracing the arts at a grassroots level. Writer and comedian Tom Scheve performs and produces comedy shows for Disclaimer Comedy with fellow comedian Cary Goff in several of the town’s clubs and venues. A month before he brought the Underwear Comedy Party to Athens, Joe Pettis invited stand-ups to strip down in Asheville’s Dirty South Lounge, which the Disclaimer Comedy show calls home on Wednesday nights.

“They have stand-up, sketch and improv,” Amy Roeder, an instructor at The Second City, says. “They have everything. It’s right in that triangle of all the big colleges in North Carolina, and it’s thrived because in that area, people want to go out. People want to see new things. People don’t just want to drink at bars; they want to have an actual experience.”

Comedy Cross-Training

Stand-up isn’t the only type of comedy popular throughout underground comedy scenes that develop in college towns. In 2006, Roeder started Improv Athens, which later became an official student organization in 2009, after she noticed a lack of improv in Athens while a graduate student in the theater department at the University of Georgia.

According to Roeder, pursuing one form of comedy is a lot less common than it was 10 years ago. “I think it took a lot more time to get anywhere in improv or stand-up because we didn’t have YouTube where we could post our latest post from our show,” she says. “We didn’t have a way to sort of get people to know us before. You just had to spend a lot of time hustling and pounding the pavement and submitting your stuff to clubs. I think out of necessity people focused on one or the other in the past.”

But chances are if you want to make it as a comedian today, you shouldn’t just stick to one type. Anne Libera, who serves as the Director of Comedy Studies at Columbia College Chicago as well as working with The Second City, says her students at Columbia College take all of their classes in an ensemble where they study all disciplines of comedy including improv, stand-up, sketch and clown.

“We jokingly call it comedy cross-training,” Libera says. “We make our writers act and our actors write. We make our stand-ups do improv and our improvisers do stand-up because we know that out in the professional world, that’s how people get jobs.”

This was the first year Columbia College Chicago offered a degree in comedy studies, making them the first school in the nation to do so. They had previously had a semester-long program in place since 2007 where students go to Chicago to learn comedy similar to study abroad programs. Aidy Bryant of Saturday Night Live is an alumna of the semester program, and now that the program is available as a degree it’s inevitable that more and more incoming students will view comedy as legitimate artistic discipline to pursue right alongside creative writing, painting, theater, or any other creative discipline schools have traditionally offered degrees in.

Don’t Forget the Airwaves

There’s also the airwaves. Lawson Chambers and his friend Collin Ingram are students in Athens who host a college show called “Comedic Conversations with Colorful Characters.” After the broadcast, they edit their shows and post them on iTunes as podcasts. Inspired by comedians like Patton Oswalt and Scott Aukerman, Chambers and Ingram said they always wanted to emulate Aukerman’s weekly podcast (and now weekly TV show) Comedy Bang! Bang!.

Chambers and Ingram, who have also done other types of comedy like stand-up, both recognize the need for “comedy cross-training” and find that aspect of the comedy profession appealing. Chambers, a senior animation major, and Ingram, a senior mass media arts major, don’t know exactly where they’ll be in five years from now, but they do know they’ll be doing something related to comedy in some capacity. For them it starts behind the microphone, but there’s not telling where it could lead.

“The landscape of the entertainment industry is why I want to be in it because you can’t do just one thing,” Chambers says. “No one wants to hear the same stand-up act forever. There always has to be new stuff happening. I like the idea of having a lot of different jobs like maybe doing stand-up, having a podcast, maybe writing for a TV show or drawing cartoons. I want all of those things be what I do, not just one thing.”

Ingram says he knows whatever he does will allow him to create and make people laugh. “I want to do something in comedy to be able to just scratch that itch of being creative and having people laugh and being able to create something that’s solely yours. It’s such a great outlet for that.”

Fewer Gatekeepers, More Opportunities

While young comedians are recognizing the need to diversify their skills in comedy, they’re facing fewer gatekeepers to become known while doing so. There’s many more opportunities for comedians to make it. “Patton Oswalt did a great speech at Just for Laughs in Montreal talking about when he was first starting his career and the way to get made as a stand-up was to get on Johnny Carson,” Libera says. “And he did. That was it. And then Johnny Carson retired and that was no longer the way.”

Thanks to the Internet, YouTube, Twitter and other technological advances, there’re fewer gatekeepers and more opportunities than ever before to be seen and find your audience. Whether it’s through a podcast an aspiring pair of comedians recorded themselves and uploaded to iTunes or a DIY improv show at a local venue, there are more ways than ever to get reps practicing your craft and hone your understanding of what it takes to be funny in a public forum.

 “Everybody who’s into comedy also has access to a video camera on their phone and they can make a sketch happen,” Roeder says. “That’s what people on the Internet are hungry for—a funny video to take their mind off the fact that their job sucks or the weather is terrible.”

It can come from anyone, and the Internet doesn’t discriminate based on where someone lives. The playing field is level.

The Community…Again

The majority of comedians who began experimenting with comedy in smaller college towns might not have ever tried to make people laugh on stage (and certainly not in their underwear) if they hadn’t gotten their start in a community supportive of the arts. Jason Flynn says he probably would have never gotten into comedy if he did not live in Athens. “I don’t think it would have ever even occurred to me to try it if it weren’t this accessible,” he says.

Like Flynn, Kevin Saucier, an Atlanta-based comedian who started doing stand-up in Alabama before moving to Atlanta, says he loves performing in college towns because the audience is always receptive. “It’s a place where you’re just constantly throwing ideas out there even when they’re not funny,” he says. “But everyone is trying to figure themselves out and jokes have that same vibe. It’s a real open place for making and receiving jokes.”

It takes a lot of courage to perform comedy in public, whether it be improv, stand-up, sketch or live broadcasting. A solidarity among others who have taken similar leaps of faith goes a long way in developing community, which goes a long way in developing creativity, which goes a long way in developing good comedy. It’s just as true in Athens, Georgia as it is in midtown Manhattan.