By Aaron Sarlo
This fall, I celebrate my 10th anniversary as a stand-up comic. Much of that time has been spent here in Central Arkansas, where some welcome changes to the comedy scene are happening. Open mics are sprouting up all over the place. Smarts, hard work and good web presence are turning comedy wastelands into must-stops for national touring comedians. All of a sudden there is a ton of great comics everywhere, and Arkansas is suddenly appearing on the national map as a legit place for comedy. In a word, shitslookinggood. To find out why (and how) that came to be, I interviewed a bunch of folks, asking each the same three questions: 1) Tell me the history of comedy in Arkansas. 2) Tell me your opinion of the scene. 3) What do you think the future holds for comedy here in Arkansas?
For some context, let’s look at some history. Before the arrival of The Loony Bin, the comedy scene in Arkansas was a sort of proto-scene, one of many dying embers across the country left over from the raging wildfire that was the ’80s comedy boom. According to The Loony Bin’s co-owner, Jeffrey Jones, before his business opened there wasn’t much of a scene at all. “When I moved [to Little Rock],” Jones said, the scene “was just this weekend room at the Holiday Inn on I-40. They lasted maybe four months after we got here.” This was 1993, and for nearly two decades afterward, The Loony Bin was more or less the only comedy venue in Little Rock. (There was also the short-lived Funnybone, on Markham Street downtown.) “There were no other open mics to do stand-up comedy in town, at all, period,” Michael Brown, the reigning king of comedy in Arkansas, told me.
Until The Joint. When Steve and Vicki Farrell opened The Joint in Argenta in the spring of 2012, they did so with comedy bona fides and an idea to open a comedy workshop. Having run a workshop in Houston — one that had produced giants such as Bill Hicks, Janeane Garofalo and Sam Kinison — their plan was to take all that good juju and apply it here. And juju was in no short supply. The Farrells had a short film featured on “Saturday Night Live,” later listed as “One of the Ten Best SNL Short Films.” They had written for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Unlike The Loony Bin, which is a professional stand-up comedy club, the Farrells intended The Joint as a sort of training ground, a place for all levels of comics, from beginners on up, to practice their craft. In Steve Farrell’s words, “The reason The Comedy Workshop turned out Bill Hicks and Janeane Garofalo is because it remained solely developmental. There were no headliners that ever played there with our own comics. So, it really became the clubhouse, the place where the social scene is.” The Joint’s mission is similar: to foster an inclusive scene for all forms of comedy, sketch, improv, stand-up and musical comedy, one of the hardest to pull off. (The Farrells, though, routinely excel at it with The Main Thing, a powerhouse of writing and performing.) It’s only been five years, but The Joint has become a welcome and necessary adjunct to the Little Rock comedy scene, and its comedy workshop atmosphere dovetails beautifully with The Loony Bin’s professional grade stand-up shows.
Meanwhile, in Northwest Arkansas
Before 2010, there wasn’t a comedy scene to speak of in Northwest Arkansas, according to Fayetteville comic Stef Bright. “There were a few open mics, but they were mixed open mics with music and comedy,” Bright said. Into this void, local comics like Troy Gittings, Brett Robinson, Zac Slusher and Brian Spence decided to create their own comedy scene — Comedians NWA. Since its inception, Comedians NWA, which now includes Bright as a member, as well as many other comedians, has grown to be a hot spot on the map. How hot? It’s a scene that really can no longer be avoided for touring comics. Bright summarized this genesis: “[Comedians NWA] started with a weekly open mic and were able to grow it. They brought in some pretty big names early on like Rory Scovel, Ralphie May and Bobcat Goldthwait.” Impressive stuff, and perhaps even more impressive is that the troupe doesn’t have its own venue. Recently, Bright said, Comedians NWA has partnered with comics in Joplin, Mo., and Pittsburgh, Kan., setting up a “three-four night run of shows where we can get national comedians to come down. … Every time we have a national comedian come through, they tell their friends in L.A. or New York, and then they reach out to us, and it keeps expanding. I mean, two years ago, hardly anybody would have thought to stop in Fayetteville. We’re actually on the radar now of all these touring comedians.”
The artist and the workhorse
So, that’s our history in a very teensy nutshell, and it’s been fueled by a few kinds of comedians. First, you’ve got The Artist. The Artist deals with the craft of the medium, largely eschewing the prickly business side of entertainment that, admittedly, can be very soul-draining. The Artist gets on stage and pushes the boundaries of what comedy can do, and is happy in this context. We have a few Artists in our state, and they make the world go around – Ozzy Jackson, Adam Hogg, Keith Terry and Zac Slusher.
Then, you’ve got The Workhorse, working comedians who are almost as dedicated to the craft and business of comedy as they are to breathing. I see them all over my news feeds, beating the streets, playing the game, never giving up, making comedy a worthwhile endeavor. Jay Jackson, Dee So Funny, Keith Terry, Andre Price, Michael Brown, The Kleitch Brothers, Jared Lowry, Ronel Williams, Michaela Janicki and countless others. You need not be a comedy diehard to understand that making people laugh for a living is honest work. It involves looking inside oneself and finding the saddest, most confusing parts of your own battered soul, then pulling them up out of you, showing them to a roomful of people and making them laugh at it with you. (Also, dick jokes.)
The Workhorses are largely why our scene is so strong now.
Take, for example, improv artist Brett Ihler, who hosts The Joint’s Tuesday night open-mic (“Punchline”) to great effect. “There’s a ton of talent here,” he said. LaVantor Butler, Michael Doc Davis and Angry Patrick, for example, or Josh the Devil’s “Spooky Talk Show,” recorded in front of a live audience in a little backyard cabin in North Little Rock. Or Paul Hodge, who hosts the Thursday night open mic sessions at Hibernia Irish Tavern. Memphis’s trans queen of comedy, Lisa Michaels, said of our comics and our scene: “There is a lot of warmth. As a transgender person, that’s a pretty big deal. So, I plan on coming [back] to Arkansas a lot,” she said. “I guess that speaks volumes about what I think of the Arkansas comedy scene.”
Sure, it’s not all sunshine and gravy. Comedy is often a stone’s throw away from self-loathing and depression, after all, and there are comedians who blackball or manipulate their peers to their own benefit. Or, perhaps they see the scene as a zero sum game that requires that they “see to it you don’t get ahead in life,” to quote Hannibal Lecter, arguably the greatest comedian of the ’90s. When you distill all the love of the Arkansas comedy scene down to its essence, though, what you will find is a group of hard-working comics who love and respect one another and who have a devotion to comedy that borders on holy reverence.
Scene on the up
This fall, the venerated Loony Bin Comedy Club is entering its 25th year in business in the exact same spot where it started (10301 Rodney Parham Road). The Joint is going into its sixth year (or 40th, if you count the Farrell family’s previous successes in comedy). Improv Little Rock has been a mainstay for 13 years. Red Octopus has been around for over two decades. These anniversaries add up to a whole lot of love for comedy and performing, and each institution’s persistence reveals a core desire. New venues keep opening around the state, too: The Grove in Rogers, for one, run by Arkansas comic Raj Suresh, who recently opened for indie superstar Kyle Kinane at a soldout show at Vino’s. Red Octopus alumnus Josh Doering said, “Little Rock, in general, I think has a huge potential for everything. It’s beautiful here, the rent’s cheap, and there are genuinely decent people running around. If it keeps going where it’s going, people will start saying, ‘Oh, yeah, Arkansas. I heard Little Rock is cool.’ “
So, that’s our scene in 2017 — a real, honest-to-gawd comedy mecca coming into focus here in Arkansas. If you are a burgeoning comic, there are now real, feasible paths for you to develop your jokes. Or, if you’re a fan of live shows, you have a ridiculous number of opportunities each and every week so see great live comedy all across the state every night of the week. Take Little Rock, for example. On Mondays, there’s an open-mic at Cajun’s Wharf. On Tuesdays, you can see over 20 comics — and drink from a list of craft beer and espresso — at The Joint. Head back on Wednesday night for some world-class improv. Thursdays, head over to Hibernia, drink a Guinness and see the open mic started by local legend Billy Pirate, RIP. On weekends, catch a cream-of-the-crop, professional-grade stand-up show with a national headliner at The Loony Bin.
Also, The Lobby Bar (320 W. Seventh St.) has regular comedy showcases hosted by Jay Jackson, Paul Hodge and Michael Brown, among others, on weekends. Or, head to The Joint to see The Main Thing perform sketch and musical comedy at its finest. And that’s just Little Rock and North Little Rock. All of Arkansas is booming with comedy and venues and showcases and open-mics, all born of a love for the fine art of making strangers laugh.