When headlining comedian Joe DeRosa took the stage at Mobile’s Blind Mule he told the audience the small, dimly lit room felt less like a comedy venue and more like he had gathered a bunch of people in a basement to talk about a terrorist attack.
The joke was meant to be endearing, but regardless, the Attic of the downtown restaurant and bar has become the home of Comedy Whatever — a homegrown effort to foster a stand-up comedy scene drawing regional and national talent while providing local comedians a place to develop their craft.
Though it used to host its weekend shows at Alchemy Tavern, Comedy Whatever’s Wednesday open mic night and Saturday comedy showcases are now under one roof at the Blind Mule. Clayton Bates, a regular performer and bartender at the Mule, said the tight-knit group of local comedians has given a younger crowd something they’re “starved for.”
“We’re the only thing like this in Mobile that’s happening right now,” Bates said. “This venue has kind of become their place. The shows on Saturday bring in people that are catching wind [of] a comedy show, but on Wednesdays it’s like a crowd of regulars.”
The crowds at both events have grown substantially since Comedy Whatever first debuted in 2013. Since the Saturday showcases began, the group has brought in hundreds of local, regional and touring comedians and hosted more than 120 shows.
Open mic events have also seen a steady increase in interest since kicking off last summer. According to Bates, there’s usually at least 10 local comedians “getting up” each week in front of crowds that have grown from less than 10 to as many as 50 in some instances.
Though other bars and venues in Mobile have welcomed sporadic comedy showcases dating back to the 1980s, Comedy Whatever is networking with other regional cities to give touring comedians another place to stop and tell a few jokes if they’re traveling along the Gulf Coast.
Regional comics working together
Mobile has been nurturing its underground comedy scene for a couple of years, but most of the comics organizing shows here got their start in Pensacola, where the Big Easy Tavern has been hosting comedy events and open mics since 2009.
Bubbs Harris has been helping facilitate Pensacola’s Comedy Unchained since then, and has been able to wrangle an impressive list of national comedians including Louis Kats, Doug Stanhope and others. Harris said regional comedians from multiple cities have worked to communicate and use each other’s venues to bring in talent for shorter tours along the eastern I-10 corridor.
“For a long time there was no comedy at all — especially an underground scene — on the Gulf Coast,” Harris said. “New Orleans has become really a powerhouse in the national scene, and it helped get a lot of attention for us, especially with tour routing.”
Harris said it’s easier to entice touring comics when you can set up a run from New Orleans heading east or Jacksonville heading west, stopping in cities like Tallahassee, Pensacola, Mobile and Ocean Springs along the way.
The Port City has reaped the benefits of that exposure. In the coming months, Comedy Whatever is bringing acts like Billy Wayne Davis from NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and Sean Patton of Conan O’Brien and Comedy Central fame. Other venues like the Saenger Theater and Moe’s Original Bar B Que are enticing names like Bill Burr and Doug Benson to stop off in the Port City.
Killer Beaz, a Mobile resident and accomplished touring comedian, said exposure to that level of talent is exactly what some of the aspiring young comedians in Mobile need. Beaz has been hashing it out behind the mic since 1982 and in his career has been featured on Comedy Central, A&E and CMT.
With his experience, Beaz has also been able to help Mobile’s younger comedians with his connections in the industry and even an occasional piece of wisdom.
“They’ve got talent, I just think they need a little more guidance,” Beaz said. “There are so many open mics today in markets that do not have comedy coming to them. You’ve got to see people that are better than you are at it. That also gives the local guys the chances to get some credits for opening up for bigger names.”
Beaz said that type of development is cyclical in an area. Bigger names generate more interest, which increases the quality of the comedy produced locally. As the local quality rises, the area becomes better known for comedy and can attract more headliners.
Whether it was planned or not, Mobile and Pensacola are two of several cities that have started working together to make that uphill battle a little easier. Harris even referred to them as “brother and sister cities.”
In addition to helping each other plan tours, organizers in Mobile and Pensacola regularly loan their comics out to one another, and often comedians from each city will go to the other’s open mic night just to try out new material in a different location.
“We’ve all cut our teeth in between the two cities,” Harris said. “I love the Mobile scene. I love the crowds out there and the atmosphere in the bars. You got a lot of good talent over there, and there’s some guys starting to break out of the regional scene and putting together little tours. You don’t have long before Mobile’s on the map for comedy. One of those guys is going to make it big eventually.”
Mobile’s comedic history
Though some, like Harris, see promise in younger generations working to grow Mobile’s reach in the comedy world, many older comics may remember clubs from decades ago like The Punchline, its second incarnation as the Mobile Comedy Club and other smaller venues that have hosted comedy sporadically.
On Cathedral Square, the Spot of Tea restaurant hosted sparse comedy events for years drawing in names like Tommy Chong and Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson. Universities in the area have also brought comedians to town while the Saenger Theatre and the Mobile Civic Center have also brought occasional headliners into the mix.
“The Punchline, a big chain out of Atlanta, used to be on Government Street, and that was one of my first times working in Mobile,” Beaz said. “We haven’t had a really steady club since then.”
Beaz like many, refers to the ‘80s as the “heyday” for standup comedy. At the time, a cultural explosion saw clubs popping up all over the country. Though Beaz has maintained a successful career, not every comedian and club could continue when the “comedy bubble” popped in the 1990s.
Though it changed its name a few times, what had been The Punchline eventually closed for good. Then in 2009, the Joe Cain Café at the Battle House Hotel started hosting shows through the Bonkerz chain of comedy clubs. But they have recently stopped booking these performances, with their last comic taking the stage in December 2014.
Building a following in the digital age
Ryan Jetten, one of the founding organizers of Comedy Whatever, said comedy, like most entertainment, was changed drastically by the Internet. Aspiring comics now have on-demand access to the any comedian they want to see and also can find an audience of their own.
Jetten said comedians today have access to countless hours of material through services like YouTube and Netflix, where newcomers can gain a wealth of style and substance well before they develop their own routine.
“We have some one-offs who get up and do it, and they’re great,” Jetten said. “But, I still want to see more guys who are willing to do it again and again so we can try to build more of a scene here. We’ve had some really good shows, but we’ve imported most of that talent.”
On Wednesdays, that’s what Jetten said he’s finally starting to see at the Blind Mule. He said the microphone and crowd are like a gym to a stand up comedian, as one of the few ways to train and improve. The other half, he said, is watching.
Though Jetten, Bates and the other comedians work diligently to promote shows online and by distributing flyers, they said ultimately most of the new people who show up to participate or take in Comedy Whatever heard about it through word of mouth.
“I can’t really see a grand vision or strategy, but I know if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will come of it,” Jetten said. “I think the best way to grow comedy in Mobile is what’s already been happening. It’ll be that organic thing that it is.”
Bates said he’s hopeful Mobile will keep growing physically, and as more jobs and business move into the downtown area, the interest in comedy, music and all forms of art will grow naturally. In the meantime, Harris said Mobile is lucky to have people here already willing to work to support the effort.
“In Pensacola, we have a problem with comics who don’t want to come out unless they’re getting stage time. Mobile doesn’t have that problem,” he said. “They’ve got something good going on, which makes me a little jealous. It’s a very tight-knit, dedicated group.”
Harris said if Mobile-based comedians keep working and opening for bigger and bigger acts, he has no doubt they will be marquee headliners themselves soon enough. But, as veterans are quick to remind them, popularity isn’t something that happens overnight.
In most any expressive art form, it’s common knowledge there will be more downs than ups at first, but Beaz, one of the more veteran comics in Mobile, said “that’s all part of it.”
“You have to be groomed and ready when something comes along. It’s all about chasing the dangled carrot and building scar tissue,” he said. “There are 1,000-to-1 odds against you with everything you do. Other than that, it’s pretty easy.”
Though Mobile is working to establish its own identity in the Gulf Coast’s growing interest in comedy, the city is far from alone. Just this week there are more than 28 open mic comedy events in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana — each with its own regulars, its own hosts and its own first timers.
“All these other spots along the Gulf started roughly the same time as us and are growing with roughly the same momentum,” Jetten said. “New Orleans and Atlanta were already kicking around and now they’re bangin’. The rest of us are just starting to really hit a stride.”
As interest in the South grows and the comedy diversifies, Jetten said it makes getting started more appealing then it may have been a few years ago, a situation other comics corroborate.
Baldwin County native T.J. King is an alumni of Second City Chicago, which has produced no shortage of household names in the comedy world. Though he still lives and performs in the Windy City, King said he’s happy to see comedy gaining traction back home.
“I think it’s great the comedy scene is opening up down South,” King said. “I remember watching TV as a kid, performing in school plays and thinking about how much fun it was. But, I never thought it would be a possibility for me (as a career). It seemed like such a different world, like something far away that I would never get to.”
King said he felt like he had to sacrifice a lot leaving where he grew up to move to place where comedy was already thriving, instead of waiting for the opportunity to meet him here. Though Jetten said Mobile is not yet a go-to destination for aspiring comics, he did say it’s becoming a better place for those who are already here.
“I wouldn’t move here just yet to make it in comedy, but if you are already here, it is a good place to stay before moving to Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles,” Jetten said. “Hopefully in a year or so, it might be another stepping stone that you would want to move to.”
As Mobile’s most recent venture into world of comedy continues to develop, some of the younger comedians are working to figure it out as they go along, and some of the older ones are just glad to see a growing interest in a form of entertainment that is often overshadowed today by dance clubs, cover bands and Glowrage.
“It’s something people want to do,” Beaz said. “That’s why people will come out and see standup done live. Because when it’s done well, it is absolutely magic, man. It’s just over-the-top awesome when it actually goes down the way it’s supposed to.”
shows in Mobile
Bind Mule (all shows 10 p.m.)
March 7 – A Jew and A Black Guy
March 14 – Billy Wayne Davis
May 23 – Sean Patton
Saenger Theatre (8 p.m.)
April 28 – Bill Burr
Moe’s Original Bar B Que (7 p.m.)
May 18 – Doug Benson