Even Louis CK had a beginning. He is one of the most successful comedians in America, and, at some point, early on, he must have sucked. Some crowd, somewhere, thought he was a piece of shit. (Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day.) Today, he is arguably the funniest man working in the entertainment industry and has complete creative control over his FX show, Louie, making him the loathed envy of and beacon of hope to his cohorts. He’s appeared on every major late night talk show in the past few years, and he’s currently promoting his fourth hour-long HBO special. But he had to start somewhere.
Stand-up comedians in this area start with open mics, usually in Champaign or Peoria. The Tuttle Brothers, Jesse and Justin, are the masterminds of Champaign-Urbana Comedy, and they have quite an operation going. Every other Thursday at the Clark Bar, they present a little something called Comedy Karaoke at 9:00 p.m. At Comedy Karaoke, the lineup of comics is chosen at random, sets last five minutes, and there is no charge for admission. Oh, and Bud Light pints are a dollar. (That’s four quarters, math majors. For sixteen ounces of beer.) Full disclosure: I left sloshed.
On the night I was attended, Jason Dockins, a local comedian, told me that the Clark Bar event may have a host for the time being, whereas they sometimes have each comic introduce the next. I don’t know if the decision to have a host will stand, but based on C-U Comedy’s past, the material and audience experience will be the most important factors considered.
Jesse Tuttle ran the show this time around, and he’s good at his job. He tests the equipment, checks tables and chairs, and makes his presence known among the audience and performers as they come in. He also lays down the law when the need arises. Jesse has charisma; he’s likeable and has stage presence. I imagine plenty of new comics wanting to exude his energy. He knows how to work with a crowd. He can sense when to milk a response and when to get down to business and introduce the next comedian. If Comedy Karaoke keeps running with Jesse as host, it will continue to do good things.
The main function of the Clark Bar’s bi-monthly event, besides entertainment, is to choose comics for the Wednesday night Standup Comedy Showcase at Memphis on Main. Comics who perform well at the open mic are eligible to be invited to perform in a weekly showcase at Memphis. The Memphis shows also start at 9:00 p.m., and the drink special is the Loose Tap. Patrons get a pint and a half (or so) of a mystery beer, usually along the lines of an American lager, for three bucks. Add the free popcorn, and it’s one of the best deals in town: entertainment, beer, and a snack for three dollars, plus tip.
At Comedy Karaoke, audiences can expect cheap drinks, a free show, and a wide variety of performers. The show is over by 10:30, so it’s both a reasonable weekday oasis and a nice pre-weekend activity to keep momentum until Saturday’s promise of sleeping in.
As for the comedic skills on display…?
Some sets are lazy, honestly. The comic will have a few drinks and go on stage, obviously unprepared, and riff for a while. This works for roughly one out of five performers. The ones that can pull it off have generally studied other comics. They have experience. They’ve been on stage before and may be bored with the usual format. This is a chance to do some crowd work or test one’s guts. The majority, however, fail miserably and spend the entire set apologizing.
There are also promising men and women that really know their stuff. They’ve done their homework and aren’t afraid to be seen by all those scary people in the audience. They work and re-work material, testing it out, week after week, until the joke is seasoned. Their stories and observations are personal, but universal. It takes balls to get up there, and I admire anyone who takes a chance. It’s truly inspiring to see someone do well, even if it’s only surviving to the end of the set.