It's 11:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night and Aziz Ansari is backstage at Third Man Records, eyeballing his set list and powering through an order of Prince's hot chicken like a champ.
Just hours ago, Ansari — best known to the world as Tom Haverford, the swagged-out entrepreneur on NBC's Parks & Recreation — tweeted an announcement for a free last-minute midnight show in Third Man's famed Blue Room, inviting hundreds of local comedy fans to abandon their late-night plans and catch him working out new material onstage. More than 300 people were admitted, and many more were turned away once the room hit capacity.
"I wouldn't stand in line for five hours to see me, but that's because I'm me," Ansari jokes before launching into an unpolished hour of in-progress jokes, tackling everything from the futility of meeting people in bars to an audience member's flirty text-message conversation with a woman he'd met a couple days earlier — a Brit whose number was stored under "Steph London." An audience of Jack White fans and comedy nerds hangs on his every word until the house lights come on around 1:15 a.m.
The amazing thing isn't that Aziz Ansari, an A-list comedian who sold out the 2,400-seat Andrew Jackson Hall in April 2012, would opt to do a free show in the middle of the night in Nashville — it's that the city rose to the occasion.
Once a town that was considered notoriously hard to crack by touring comedians, Music City seems to have developed a sense of humor in recent years — and with it, a legitimate comedy scene. As Zanies celebrates 30 years as a beacon for comedy in the South, a new club downtown is becoming a comedy hub, and a scrappy community of local comedians is on the verge of breaking out.
Nashville's status as a comedy tour stop goes back as far as the 1970s — even further if you count the vaudeville circuit that swung through long-defunct theaters like The Orpheum and The Princess or the Chitlin' Circuit that brought black entertainers to town. Before comedy clubs were a thing, now-legendary comics like Steve Martin played wherever a stage and an audience could be found. In Nashville, that mostly meant rock clubs like Exit/In and college gigs at Vanderbilt.
Martin has said those early Nashville gigs were integral to his development as a comedian. "One night at the Exit/In I took the crowd down the street to a McDonald's and ordered three hundred hamburgers to go, then quickly changed it to one bag of fries," he writes in his 2007 autobiography Born Standing Up. "Another night, I took them to a club across the street and we watched another act. I was a new-enough performer that there was no overblown celebrity worship, which meant I could do the show and carouse in the streets, uninterrupted by ill-timed requests for autographs or photos. Even though I had done the act hundreds of times, it became new to me this hot, muggy week in Nashville."
It wasn't until 1983 that Rich Uchwat opened Zanies on Eighth Avenue South. An Austrian immigrant and Vietnam veteran, Uchwat had opened the first Zanies in 1978 in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood at the behest of a cousin and couple of friends. Five years later, he saw an untapped comedy market in Music City. At last, our city had a designated place for people to be professionally funny.
Zanies Nashville came of age during the comedy circuit's glory days. In the '80s, hundreds of comedy clubs (and thousands of wannabe comedians) sprouted up across the nation — many of them run by people who didn't really care much about comedy but who were looking to make a quick buck. The industry was on fire throughout the decade, but when the '90s hit, the comedy boom began to fizzle.
As the bubble burst, once-bustling establishments started to draw smaller and smaller crowds, and the stereotype of the depressing comedy club began to take root. Comedy venues began shutting down left and right. But a few dedicated club owners managed to ride out the hard times.
That's one reason Zanies' 30th anniversary is an occasion worth celebrating — for defying the odds. And there's another reason, perhaps even more significant: Without Zanies, it's likely Nashville would have no comedy scene to speak of. Zanies paved a way for comedians in Middle Tennessee.
But Zanies didn't get to this point without a fight. For reasons difficult to pinpoint, Music City developed a reputation among road comics as a tough place to perform. The Nashville comedy audience that turned out for Steve Martin shows in the '70s eventually burned out after the comedy boom of the 1980s.
Brian Dorfman is the current owner of Zanies Nashville. He came to Nashville in 1996 to run the local Zanies outpost after a successful stint running a suburban Chicago Zanies with his brother, Andrew.
"When I got down here, this was a tough room to play," Dorfman says. "Like, Louie C.K. 20 years ago would not have worked here. Bobby Slayton, who's one of my favorite acts of all time, does not work here. ... People's reference points are different. You can't come from the East Coast and try to force your will upon people."
That sentiment is echoed by Keith Alberstadt, a New York-based comedian who grew up in Nashville and began his comedy career here in the '90s before moving to New York City in 2006.
"When I started out, it was tough, but it was primarily tough because I was still cutting my teeth," Alberstadt says, laughing. "I did find it like that. A lot of veterans would talk about how difficult the room at Zanies was, and nobody could really put a finger on why."
It's hard to say what loosened up the room, but Nashville's reputation as a tough nut to crack seems to be a thing of the past. There are still hecklers, rogue bachelorette parties and other assorted comedy club antagonists — those elements will never go away. But Nashville audiences have become increasingly receptive, and many comedians have built relationships with Zanies, some over decades, which has helped open doors for them in other clubs.
"We put the spin on there to give any local [comedian] credibility," Dorfman says. "Comics that go on the road, the first time they go on the road, I'll tell everyone to use my name. I don't want to sound arrogant, but we have a great reputation in this business. ... I help those people go get bookings. That's huge for them."
Zanies is an institution — the third-oldest comedy club franchise, after The Improv and The Comedy Store, according to Dorfman — and walking into the Nashville branch, you can practically feel the history wafting through the air. Entire walls are covered with head shots of comedians who have played the club — everyone from Tim Allen to Kevin Hart to Patton Oswalt. With the exception of the myriad technological advances and some photos of contemporary comics, the club exudes a distinctly '80s kitsch, down to the Ziggy-like cartoons and "Soul Man" blaring like a comedy Klaxon at the beginning of each show. Everything about the place screams, "You are here for comedy!" — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Zanies' history isn't lost on touring comedians like Chris Hardwick, whose Nerdist podcast represents the pinnacle of what comedians can achieve today with enough digital hustle.
"Zanies is an interesting club because it's kind of legendary," Hardwick told the Scene in December, prior to a headlining stint there. "The Zanies chain, it's been there for so long. You see all of these head shots of famous comics when they were young who all had to be on the same stage. For a comedy nerd, it's really special."
But at the end of the day, Zanies is still a business. And for Dorfman, that business hasn't changed much since he started working in the industry. Zanies embodies the essence of what a lot of people have come to expect in a comedy club. In Dorfman's eyes, comedy isn't all that different from what it was when he started out. No matter the innovations in production or distribution, the act of stand-up comedy will always be jokes being told onstage.
"People are comfortable with Zanies," Dorfman says. "Ninety-five out of a hundred times an audience is coming to Zanies, they're going to enjoy the show. Whether it's Drew Carey or D.C. Curry, they're going to laugh. We've changed peoples' thought processes through that, in terms of who they like. We've changed demographics. Comedy, to a point, is universal. Now, the reference points might be a little different, but everyone has the same experience of life and family and work and school."
With that in mind, Zanies has become a haven for all sorts of comedians. In June alone, Zanies will host a slate of acts that couldn't be more disparate: clean comedy veteran James Gregory, Def Comedy Jam star Bill Bellamy, This American Life-approved storytelling comic Mike Birbiglia, SNL alum Jon Lovitz, Ralphie May, Kyle Kinane, Michael Yo and more.
And at each of those shows, Zanies will provide a stage for locals to move up in the ranks, from MC to feature, and maybe one day, to headliner. It's not just a destination for comedy fans — it's also a stepping stone for local comedians.
"It's a launching pad," Dorfman says. "Everything fits into the hierarchy of things. It's tough for us to do open mics all the time because of where you fit in the business, but we do writing classes at the club. We give people the chances to get up there and get that confidence. There's always a place for people to fit in."
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