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."
While Zanies celebrates its milestone anniversary, another club is starting to make its own mark as a comedy destination. As its name suggests, Jazz & Jokes, an urban-focused entertainment venue in the heart of downtown, isn't exclusively a comedy club, but comedy is a component of nearly all its programming. "We pretty much do comedy 90 percent of the time our doors are open," co-owner Adrian Granderson says via email. "Rarely do we have music events without comedy. We have an improv comedy night on Wednesdays, open mic that includes comedians and singers alike on most weeks. And our weekend shows, even when the headliner is music, have comedy."
The seeds of Jazz & Jokes were planted in November 2006, when Granderson and his cousin, comedian Daran Howard, started hosting a monthly event at a variety of venues in Nashville, Huntsville and Memphis. It was an auspicious beginning, to say the least: Their very first show featured Craig Robinson, then a relatively unknown comic — you may know him now as The Office's Darryl Philbin or Eastbound & Down's Reg Mackworthy. And he's playing himself in the upcoming Seth Rogan apocalypse comedy This Is the End.
Inspired by the success of the events, Granderson and business partners Joe Johnson and Robert Higgins decided to open Jazz & Jokes. "We were excited to be able to take take this monthly event and actually turn it into a brick-and-mortar music and comedy showplace," he says.
Like many of the people contacted for this story, Granderson says Nashville's comedy scene today is much better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. "The pool of comics is much bigger and more diverse," he says, citing Jazz & Jokes house MCs Brian "B. Cov" Covington and Deric "Sleezy" Evans in particular. Prior to their gigs MCing at the club, both Covington and Evans were successfully co-hosting their own shows in nightclubs and bars like Nashville Center Stage and Café Bella, drawing consistent crowds outside of traditional comedy clubs.
Granderson also has high praise for local comedians Renard Hirsch and TC Cope. "[They] remain the best ambassadors for Nashville comedy that this city could have asked for," he says. "Both are touring and touting the skills of Nashville comics, and people are taking notice. Comics now want to come to Nashville." In fact, he says, national comedy acts playing larger venues have been known to drop in his club to do a guest spot.
And according to Granderson, Jazz & Jokes is one of only a handful of comedy clubs in America predominantly booking black comedians (including Hirsch and Cope). "This is major for ... the city's image," he says, "and Nashville should be very proud of that."
For his part, Hirsch says Granderson & Co.'s venture has been a boon for the scene. "I don't think urban comics in Nashville feel the need to create their own shows anymore," he says via email. "With Jazz & Jokes, [local] urban comics are now able to watch, perform and network with some of the top urban comics in the industry."
Hirsch is also happy about the addition of comedy open mics at Mercy Lounge and The East Room, though he says the scene could benefit from a few more urban open mics. Regardless, he has no desire to be pigeonholed as simply an urban comic.
"As a comic who performs on mainstream and urban shows," Hirsch says, "I make it a point to try to perform and be funny in front of any crowd, whether they be black, white, country, Christian, drunks, nerds, jocks, pimps, moms, whatever. It is a comic's job to find the funny vein of the crowd in front of them and put the needle in it. (Don't know where that heroin reference came from, but I am going with it!)"
Dorfman, who regularly books black comics at Zanies, also thinks that much of the best comedy is universal, and he sees it reflected in his audience. "I've seen so many times through the years," he says, "when the Earthquakes and the Sheryl Underwoods and the Bruce Bruces and D.L. Hughleys of the world first came here, their clientele was 95 percent black. Now the same acts come here, they sell more tickets than ever, and [the audience is] maybe 50-50 white and black."
On a recent Monday night on Cannery Row, more than 50 people are piled into Mercy Lounge's pool room, an auxiliary bar tucked away in the back of the mid-sized rock club. On most nights, the room functions as a place to avoid long bar lines or escape the loud music at rock shows. But on Mondays, it hosts Open House, a weekly open mic held by Corporate Juggernaut, a comedy collective that bills itself as "Nashville's new comedy alternative."
"It's kind of like the word 'hipster,' " says Corporate Juggernaut co-founder Gary Fletcher, who hosts Open House. "Nobody wants to call themselves that. Personally, I don't feel like my comedy's 'alternative.' I just feel like I'm a dude talking about dude-ish shit."
Fletcher founded the collective with comics James Austin Johnson and John Thornton Jr. nearly two years ago after they met at a weekly open mic at Spanky's, a sports bar hidden behind the Walmart on Nolensville Road. Their goal: to create more opportunities to perform, while bringing in comedians who might otherwise pass over Nashville, aside from scattered dates at Zanies.
After a handful of shows at venues like The Basement and Bongo After Hours Theatre, Corporate Juggernaut found a home base at The High Watt, where the troupe arguably has become the face of Nashville's underground comedy scene.
"Spanky's was pretty much the only place I would do [comedy] for the first while, because there wasn't a lot going on. The Zanies open mic really didn't exist at that time, and there just weren't a lot of opportunities," Fletcher says. "There just wasn't a lot happening when I started. And not saying that I made it happen, but there just weren't a lot of younger people doing it then."
At 28, Fletcher represents a younger generation of comics, and he's squarely in the median age range at the open mic. Most of the comics in the room are young — including 18-year-old high school student Connor Barnett — though there are a few older scene veterans too. In total, 21 comics will take the mic, and most of them will be back next week. And the week after. And the week after.
Open mics exist as an entryway for aspiring comics, and over the past year, the number of open mics has been steadily multiplying. Aside from Mercy Lounge's weekly show, comics can find open stage time at Springwater, The East Room on Gallatin Avenue, Jazz & Jokes and Spanky's off Nolensville Road. Several other open mics have come and gone, as comics try out venues to see if they possess the mysterious qualities that make for a "good comedy room."
If the strength of a scene can be measured in the number of different seats a comedian can perform in front of, Nashville has certainly come a long way from having one club and an open mic.
"One great club does not necessarily make it a scene," says comedian Jane Borden, between bites of mac-and-cheese at Fido. "One great club means there's going to be great comedy for people to watch, but it doesn't mean there are going to be comedians living in their city. That's where a DIY grassroots scene changes things, and that's what I feel like is happening right now."
Borden was the comedy critic at Time Out New York for seven years and a sketch and improv performer before that. Now living in Sewanee with her husband Nathan Stodgill, a visiting professor at the university, Borden fell in with the local stand-up scene after touring the South with Corporate Juggernaut. As members of the collective moved on or moved away, she's become a key figure, helping book shows and hosting her own monthly storytelling show, Pictures of Fireworks, under the Juggernaut banner at Fido in Hillsboro Village.
"There are a lot of cities that have always had good stand-up scenes, like New York, L.A., Chicago, Boston. And then there's a bunch of cities that just kind of come and go. And I feel like that's where Nashville is. People are starting to hear, 'Oh, Nashville is becoming a cool stand-up city.' "
Pinpointing precisely when Nashville started becoming a "cool stand-up city" is tricky, but a compelling argument can be made that the current scene had its origins in the late '90s and early '00s, when comedy-friendly joints like The Bar Car — a long-departed Cummins Station dive that employed current Spanky's proprietor Lundy Lee — were encouraging comedians without high expectations for bar sales.
"[The Bar Car's weekly open mic] is where I met people like Chad Riden and Jesse Perry and Danny Limor," Alberstadt says. "We started hanging out and gelling. That's when things started to really bubble in Nashville for comedy. There was a lot of stuff going on, and comedy just got hot again."
The link between the Bar Car days and the current scene is Riden, who has been a central figure in Nashville comedy for more than a decade. At 38, Riden is the closest thing the scene has to an elder statesman — the sort of guy who would take Marc Maron to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack after a Zanies late show. (Maron relived the experience on his podcast WTF and in his new book Attempting Normal.)
In 2001, Riden took over NashvilleStandUp.com and turned it into a hub for local comics to promote shows, talk shop and air their grievances.
"People were very suspicious," Riden says, standing outside the Ultimate Comedy open mic at The East Room. "The guys that were touring at the time, they were like, 'Why are you promoting my show at Guido's Pizza? You're not gonna get up.' And I'm like, I don't want to. But, I figure if we all get awareness, then it helps everybody."
Riden is nothing if not a community builder. In addition to maintaining NashvilleStandUp.com (and the legion of social network profiles associated with it), he organizes an informal weekly gathering for comics at the Nashville Farmers' Market — an opportunity for locals and passers-through alike to get together and shoot the shit. Furthermore, his persistence in encouraging young comedians to put on their own shows has been an essential catalyst in the burgeoning scene we see today.
"For a long time, we had a Tuesday night and that's it," Riden says, recalling the days of The Bar Car, and more recently, Spanky's. "I've been frustrated a lot with people not being proactive, but then I've just thought, fuck it. Maybe that's just what I do then, is just start fucking shows."
It seems like that attitude is beginning to sink in. Mary Berger and Paulina Combow co-hosted a short-lived recurring gig with Riden at That's Cool on Franklin Road until the show went bust. Berger and Combow then ventured out on their own with Comedy Pug Hugs, a monthly comedy night at Cafe Coco. Sean Parrott, who hosts the monthly Springwater open mic ("Dive Laughing"), booked a well-received one-off show at The Building in East Nashville, where he performed hilarious songs about soda and monsters doin' it.
And then there's Corporate Juggernaut, which has been steadily booking shows at The High Watt, where a mixture of local rock folks and comedy nerds intermingle to see headliners like Rory Scovel, Pete Holmes and Jarrod Harris, respected comics who are just breaking out.
"I think our kind of regulars and our demographic ... would love to see a stand-up comedy show, but they just don't know it," says High Watt manager Brandon Jazz. He hooked up with Corporate Juggernaut after catching their show with Kyle Kinane at Bongo Java in January 2012. Dismayed by the tiny room and lack of a bar, Jazz suggested The High Watt — then a brand-new music venue in the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom complex — as a home base for Corporate Juggernaut, then down to two members after Thornton left to attend Duke Divinity School.
"I had to kind of sell them on it," Jazz says. "My idea was that if we provide people with an environment they're already familiar with, [they'll come to comedy shows]."
The name recognition of The High Watt's sister club Mercy Lounge has certainly been a boon to Corporate Juggernaut, allowing them to treat stand-up comedy as a loss leader. Their gamble has been that booking touring comics will build an audience of comedy fans and music fans who already trust Mercy's stamp of approval, which will in turn lead to bigger audiences for CJ-affiliated local shows — like Will Copeland's Comedy High Five — and more performers stepping up for the open mic.
That said, the biggest asset, according to Fletcher, has turned out to be Jazz himself.
"He really cares about comedy, whereas I don't feel like most bar owners do. That's the thing that's so hard about starting comedy shows in places. They're like, 'Where is everybody? Why can't the show go on longer so we can keep people here longer?' But Brandon understands it. He's been the biggest help. Having him fight for us and being patient with the shows — that's the thing that's helped us out."
Jazz is a relentless self-promoter, a skill he's sharpened with his glam-pop band Brandon Jazz and His Armed Forces. He's a hustler, and last year managed to parlay his silly Westboro Baptist Church counter-protest video into a gig opening for the B-52's at the Ryman. And although he's an "honorary comedian" who now regularly goes onstage at the Juggernaut open mics, he knows his role is in management, planning and logistics.
"They're comedians, and their job is to be funny," Jazz explains flatly. "I run a music venue. My job is to know how to put in offers or convince a booking agent that Pete Holmes should come do two shows on a Friday night in Nashville, where he's never played before."
It's that kind of support that's sparked Nashville's recent comedy boom. Comedy scenes will always need funny people as performers, but if those funny people aren't able to book shows, promote outside of comic circles and try bold things, then whatever scene might exist will vanish. People like Jazz, Dorfman and Granderson — all deeply invested in comedy and highly capable of capitalizing on that investment — are the right people in the right roles, key figures propelling the local comedy scene forward.
But what happens when rising local comics leave? Traditionally, stand-up comedians start out in "down market" cities — Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco — and then move to New York or Los Angeles to pursue bigger and better opportunities. Corporate Juggernaut co-founder Johnson left Nashville for Los Angeles earlier this year, and Gary Fletcher sees such a move in his future.
The trick is to create a community that's self-sustaining. Comparable cities like Austin, Portland, Ore., and New Orleans have all developed modest comedy scenes that haven't faded when major players skip town. Nashville isn't yet at the same level as those respected mid-tier comedy towns, but some of the local players are working to change that.
"What I've always wanted for Corporate Juggernaut, especially in the past year, has been to see it get to the level of the way Laughing Skull is in Atlanta," Fletcher says. "It's like a really small alternative room. It only seats like 75 people, I think, but they have a really good reputation, and really good comics would come through there and do shows. And that's what I'd like for us to have."
In the end, a comedy scene can't rely on one component alone — it needs a well-respected traditional comedy club, a place for young comics to be weird and risky, comedy rooms catering to diverse audiences, roadhouse bars full of drunks who might want to fight you. These rooms aren't competing in the same sense that Exit/In and Mercy Lounge are gunning to scoop up the same buzz-worthy Pitchfork bands — they are all essential for comedians and comedy fans. These are the things that add up to a comedy town, and Nashville, with enough hustle, is capable of getting there.
"It's like the newspaper on the bottom of the fire has caught the kindling." Borden says. "Now we just need to catch the logs."
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