This post is a belated thank you, posted after I let an anniversary slip by unacknowledged. As usual, I had the best of intentions, but you know how that goes. In January of 2016, I marked the first year of my life as a producer of live comedy shows in Knoxville. Like so much of the path I’ve been on these past couple of years, it was not a skill I would have imagined I’d be developing at this point in my life if you had asked me three or four years ago. And, yet, here we are.
While my stand-up comedy pursuits were initially fueled by a need to explore new ways of expressing myself and gaining a bit of control over my topsy-turvy world at the time, the role of producer seems to have come from a different place. I guess I liken it to nesting. Once I began to feel comfortable as a part of the Knoxville or “Scruffy City” comedy scene, I began to seek out opportunities to put my other vocational skills to use, such as my 25 years in public relations and marketing.
I was fortunate in that I formed a friendship and comedy alliance with some great people in the Knoxville comedy scene, namely at the beginning: Matt Ward, Matt Chadourne, Eliot Rahal, and Tyler Sonnichsen. When an opportunity opened up for me to produce a weekly comedy showcase in downtown Knoxville, Matt Ward graciously agreed to mentor me. If you know Matt, you know what good fortune I had as he is a tireless promoter and producer of comedy shows and festivals (including the Scruffy City Comedy Festival right here in Knoxville). Matt Ward doesn’t always like the recognition, but it is not an understatement to say that he practically built the Knoxville comedy scene single-handedly, helping to launch and run open mics, booking indie shows, and- most importantly- mentoring other comics in town.
I was also fortunate in knowing that Matt Chadourne, Eliot, and Tyler were also quite interested in seeing the local scene develop a new kind of comedy showcase show beyond the regular open mics. In their respective scenes of Seattle, Chicago, and Washington DC, where they had lived and performed before life relocated them to Knoxville, as well as here in Knoxville, they had experience in creating and managing shows. Together, we formed a cooperative team to figure out how to take the opportunity for a new weekly show at a new venue and turn it into something special and helpful to the scene. We met and drew out ideas on napkins and scrap pages from our joke notebooks, we emailed thoughts to one another, texted, and discussed possibilities and logistics. We bought a domain and set up a Tumblr site, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. From these guys, I was able to get a crash course in creating and producing a comedy show.
And that is how The Station Comedy Showcase at the Blue Slip Winery was born. It was an ambitious plan. We would launch a weekly comedy showcase with a rotating “cast” of local comics and the best traveling comics our limited budget (courtesy of the generous folks at the winery) could afford. It was an intimate room with a seating capacity of about 50 people. We set it up with small votives on the table, borrowed Victor Agreda’s lighting system and Matt Ward’s PA system and tried our very best to create a swanky nightclub vibe. A local food truck even participated each week (this was the winery’s cool idea) that allowed guests to text their order from the show and have it delivered to their table. It was certainly something different than the traditional open mic and I like to think it made a good impression on the audience and visiting comics alike on the potential for the Knoxville comedy scene. A combination of factors, not the least of which included a winter weather season that forced the cancellation of the show three consecutive weeks, eventually doomed the ambitious little show after only nine weeks of performances. But, we learned a lot in those nine weeks. That first show was January 14, 2015. That’s the anniversary I meant to observe a while ago and am only just now getting around to acknowledging.
I can tell you that the first show at The Station was co-headlined by Craig Holcombe and Andy Cummins from South Carolina. In a nice nod to completing the cycle, Craig returned to Knoxville in January of 2016 to co-headline the show that had become the next generation of what we tried to create at The Station.
About the time The Station was shutting down as a weekly comedy showcase, we also had to deal with the sadness of our friend and comedy partner Eliot Rahal moving to Minneapolis with his lovely bride for her job as a television reporter. Eliot was such a great help in the days of The Station. I can’t say enough great things about him. I strongly urge you to see him perform when you can and, if you can’t, you should at least buy one of the amazing comic books he writes these days. My favorite is the Dark Horse series The Paybacks, but the new The Doorman series at Heavy Metal has been getting a lot of good press, too.
In May of 2015, opportunity knocked and we took the bait. New York City comedians Kenny DeForest and Clark Jones were traveling through Knoxville and wondered if we knew of a place where they might put on a show. We didn’t, but Tyler and I set out to look for a place. Eventually, we met with the owner of Saw Works Brewing Company in downtown Knoxville (just blocks away from the train station/winery that hosted our original show, as fate would have it) and he and his team somehow agreed with us that it was worth a shot. And, so, in June of 2015, First Friday Comedy at Saw Works Brewing launched with Kenny and Clark. It has been playing each month since then, often to standing-room only crowds. With this series, we added a new friend to the team: Sean Simoneau. Sean also had an interest in learning about producing and promoting shows and he has been a great team member to have.
Success breeds success and a brewer at Saw Works recommended us to her other bosses at a craft beer market and bar on the other side of town when they started talking about the prospect of a live comedy night. Before we knew it, in November we added a monthly showcase on the first Tuesday of each month at The Casual Pint in Hardin Valley. In keeping with our naming tradition of branding the venue’s name into the show’s name, this show became Casual Comedy.
Both First Friday Comedy at Saw Works and Casual Comedy follow a similar formula with local performers invited to have stage time along with visiting headliners and features. One of the four of us (Matt C., Sean, Tyler, or me) serves as the host each month. We didn’t invent anything here. That’s a tried-and-true formula for comedy showcases everywhere. But we keep tweaking things to make each show reveal its own particular personality. The Saw Works show has a seating capacity of 75-100 (and we have topped the century mark with standing room only crowds), while Casual Comedy has a seating capacity of 40. Saw Works provides a theater-style vibe, while Casual Comedy feels at times like watching a comedy show in your den. Both shows are usually only two hours in length (sometimes less) and both start early– 7 pm– providing patrons with the ability to get home at a decent hour if they have to work the next day or the ability to move the party along to a show or venue elsewhere in town once ours has said goodnight. The bar at Saw Works is a constant buzz of activity in the back of the performance hall, while the Casual Comedy show includes a brief intermission to allow patrons to slip out of the performance room to refill their beer glasses without missing any of the show.
I have to say, I’ve had a lot of fun learning how to plan and promote shows, how to network and book with traveling comics, how to help bar owners market their business and grow their customer base, and more. It has been especially fun to have the luxury to create shows where performers get paid for their work every time and to see them perform for audiences eager to laugh and have fun. My goal, all of the team’s goal, is to develop shows that can be signature representations of our own scene to locals and visitors alike. When I hear that out-of-town comics encourage other comics to perform on one of our shows, I feel a sense of pride not just in the team’s effort to create a successful show, but also pride in how it reflects on Knoxville’s comedy scene as a whole.
Success breeds success, as I’ve said. And, we have new opportunities already lining up in 2016. I’ll save all that for another post, though.
What I want to do right now is something very simple. I want to say thank you to the businesses that gave us a chance in 2015 to give live comedy a home in Knoxville: Blue Slip Winery, Saw Works Brewing Company, and Casual Pint-Hardin Valley. I want to say thank you to Matt Ward for being such a good friend and mentor in helping us nurture and grow the scene he first planted seeds for years ago. Thanks, also, in this first year to Victor Agreda, Jr. for the constant loan of equipment. I swear to him we’re about to have completed our acquisition of all our own necessary things so we can leave him alone sometime in 2016. Thanks, of course, to my pals who have worked alongside me in my freshman year of producing: Matt Chadourne, Eliot Rahal, Sean Simoneau, and Tyler Sonnichsen. And thanks, of course, to all of you who have braved wind and rain, snow and ice, heat, and inertia to get out of the house, to come to one of our shows, and to buy things from the venues that host us. You are why we get to keep doing it.
And finally, I want to say thanks to every comic who has agreed to perform on one of our stages and brought their best material each time for our audience– whether it was just a few people willing to brave a snowy, rainy night or noisy standing-room only crowd on a hot August night.
I have included in the attached photo collages, images of each of the comedians I had the privilege of bringing to one (or more) of our stages between January 2015 and January 2016. These are my yearbook pages for my freshman year of producing. Each of these performers were hilarious.
Here are their names: Victor Agreda Jr., Carrie Adams, Mo Arora, Lauren Bencaz, Keith Bergman, Lisa Berry, Jeff Blank, John-Michael Bond, Paige Bowman, Matt Chadourne, Aaron Chasteen, Trae Crowder, Andy Cummins, Kenny DeForest, Scott Eason, Ian Ferguson, Max Fine, Corey Forrester, Angela Garrone, Karen George, Jake Head, Riki Higgins, Minori Hinds, Craig Holcombe, Clark Jones, Jay Kendrick, Alex Kumin, Chris Ledford, Joe Leeper, Todd Lewis, Dave Losso, Holly Lynnea, Boston McCown, Dustin Meadows, Andrew Michael, John Miller, Blayr Nias, Eliot Rahal, Grady Ray, Jasper Redd, Hunter Roberts, Samm Severin, Sean Simoneau, Dulce Sloan, Tyler Sonnichsen, Alex Stokes, Sumukh Torgalkar, and Matt Ward.