Is This Thing On?

BY Skip Maloney

Like many areas in the nation Wilmington was the beneficiary of a sudden boom in the area of stand-up improvisational and sketch comedy in the late 1980s and on into the 1990s. With the help of the Internet network television and cable programs dedicated to comedy the nation jumped on a comedy club bandwagon that threatened to validate the idea that everybodys a comedian. Weekly comedy nights were a staple at Wrightsville Beachs Blockade Runner and several night spots in Historic Downtown Wilmington joined the parade.

“Comedy was hot ” says Basile the professional entertainer and touring comedian widely known as the voice of Bullwinkle J. Moose of Rocky & Bullwinkle fame. “But then you had a glut of shows. I mean everybody had a show and it just fell apart in the 90s. You had club owners who were going with the cheapest acts which always comes back to bite you in the [posterior portion of your anatomy].”

After growing up in the New York area Basile moved to the Midwest and started his stand-up comedy career in Cleveland Ohio. His desire for a family and a home base led him to Wilmington partially because his in-laws owned the City Market Caf on Front Street but also because from a traveling standpoint Wilmington was more or less centrally located (in a center-of-the-East-Coast kind of way). While maintaining a cross-country and international tour schedule Basile continues to reside and perform locally doing so in May for two nights at the Brown Coat Pub & Theatre.

The Brown Coat venue is small. There are a total of 44 seats facing the stage and about a dozen stools at the bar in the next room. On Basiles opening night a Friday fewer than a dozen (hysterically laughing) people were on hand. Two weeks later Basile was performing at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City New Jersey in front of a packed house of some 900 (hysterically laughing) patrons. Afterwards he noted that the two contrasting venues were equally valuable to him; one offered the comic feedback only possible in a large raucous room full of (hysterically laughing) people and the other provided an opportunity to test new material.

“Its nice to get back to your roots and work on your stuff ” Basile says. “I dont get to do that too often but as any good comedian will tell you you gotta learn to switch gears.”

ou dont need to travel to Atlantic City to note that sort of contrast in the local comedy scene. One week after Basile appeared at the Brown Coat more than 300 people packed the fifth floor auditorium of City Stage at Level 5 to watch nearly 20 local comedians perform at the second annual Port Citys Top Comic program. The event was organized by “Super Cat Matt” Ward a local comedian and the driving force behind a troupe of local comedians known as Comedy by the Beach which performs at a variety of beach venues.

“Comedy by the Beach was started out of frustration over the comedy clubs that local comedians couldnt get into ” says Ward. “It wasnt so much that the area was saturated with comedians but we were filling the gaps. People wanted to see comedy in places other than the big comedy clubs like in Myrtle Beach and Raleigh that have cover and minimum drink charges.”

Wards Comedy by the Beach is only one of a host of comedy troupes in the area including the all-female Ovary Action and another group to which Ward belongs The Justice League of Comedy. There are improvisational comedy troupes such as The Port City Players and sketch comedy troupes such as Changing Channels both of which perform at City Stage at Level 5 on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

While all of these local comedians appreciate the availability of one-night stands at a multiplicity of locations there has been for some time a longing among comedians and audiences alike for an official comedy club whose sole purpose would be to spotlight the areas substantial comedic talent.

“Comedy needs a home in the Port City ” says Suzee Toon a local comedian who opened the proceedings of the Port Citys Top Comics engagement at City Stage in May and is also the host of a Friday night/Saturday morning classified ads radio show on WLTT (93.7) and The Big Talker (106.3). “Up to this point comedy in Wilmington has been pretty much a refugee situation.”

Theres a difference in other words between clubs that host a comedy night and a local comedy club dedicated to the development of local comic talent and an audience. As far back as 2005 The Juggling Gypsy Caf was hosting an “open mic” night. Later The Soapbox Laundro Lounge opened a Nutt St. Comedy venue. And today the Brown Coat is hosting its Wednesday night open mics. But until local comedian Timothy Sherrill opened the Nutt St. Comedy Room at the Soapbox in June there had never been a full-time comedy club in the Port City.

Sherrills plan is to establish this room as the permanent home for Wilmington comedy that Toon and a host of other local comedians feel the community deserves.

“Theres been a lack of consistency in the Wilmington comedy scene ” says Sherrill. “Its the largest hurdle that we local comedians have run into.”

Richard Davis owner of the Brown Coat is not convinced that the roughly 200 000 people in New Hanover County including the half of them or so that reside in the city of Wilmington are ready to support a full-time comedy club. Davis has been working to build an audience through his open mic nights and his attitude about this stems from a distinct “been there done that” point of view.

“From a purely objective and pragmatic position I dont think the Wilmington audience is capable of supporting a full-time comedy club ” Davis says. “Theres just so much competition for the entertainment dollar here. There are six different theaters live music venues just a variety of different kinds of clubs competing for entertainment dollars. For 100 000 people [Wilmingtons approximate population] I dont think a full-time club will survive.”

Basile for one disagrees despite his two nights at the Brown Coat playing as he put it to the “tens of people” who showed up.

“Richards a great guy ” he says “but I do disagree with him. Someones got to make it steadfast and consistent though. You have to make sure the ship is running on course.”

Not surprisingly Sherrill disagrees with Davis as well. Being a comedian himself hell bring the Nutt St. Comedy Room a sense of whats important on both sides of the microphone.

“I would have to say that this town is ready for it and will support it if its run on a consistent basis ” he says adding that in a way its a matter of training the local audience bringing them one show at a time to the understanding that the comedy is going to be there week in and week out and that its going to start on time.

“The way Ill be running this room ” he says “is that I may hold the doors for a few minutes but if its longer than that Ill shut them so the show can start. Its a matter of training or teaching the town show times are show times and we need to stick to that.”

Plans for the Nutt St. Comedy Room include importing tested and established comedians on a regular basis monthly at first some bookings have already been scheduled. As the hoped-for growth and development of the local audience proceeds bookings of locally or nationally known comedians will increase in frequency. There will of course need to be a broad base of local talent to work this room through its growing pains and fortunately the availability of that talent has already been established.

“There are ” says Suzee Toon “plenty of good local comics to put on that stage.”

Toon of course is among them and she makes note that thanks to another local female comedian Brooklin Green there are more on the way.

“Brooklin has that comedy class she teaches at Cape Fear Community College ” Toon says adding that after 16 years of wanting to do stand-up comedy Greens class was the final nudge that got her on stage actually doing it. “Thanks to Brooklin the Port City has its own little comedic factory.”

So the room is there. The talent is there.

Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine Bullwinkle standing next to Rocky. Hear the mooses voice as he exhorts you to support your local comedians.

“I know the economys tough ” says Bullwinkle “but you have to find a way to escape and maybe just maybe Nutt St. will be the way to do that.

“Hey Rocky ” he adds. “Want to watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat?”

funny factories

Brown Coat Pub & Theatre
111 Grace Street

The Juggling Gypsy Caf
1612 Castle Street

Nutt St. Comedy Room at the Soapbox
255 N. Front Street

City Stage at Level 5
21 N. Front Street