Sept. 7 2016 09:57 AM

Greater Lansing’s underground comedy scene rises to the surface

Comedy Coven (left to right: Stephanie Onderchanin, Tricia Chamberlain and Emily Syrja) hosts a monthly comedy show at the Robin Theatre. The show is just one of the many comedy-centric events popping up in Greater Lansing.
Courtesy Photo

The closings of Connextions Comedy Club and Tripper’s Comedy Club were a huge blow to the local standup comedy community, taking away two of the scene’s precious few venues. But like a game of whack-a-mole, local comedians rebounded and are popping up all over Greater Lansing.

Patrons gathered at the Beer Grotto in downtown Lansing last Wednesday for the latest comedy series to spring up in the area. The third installment of the weekly Comedy Night at the Beer Grotto, 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights, featured a handful of local comics. Local comedian Nick Leydorf, who was filling in for the evening’s regular hosts, Michigan comedians Robert Jenkins and Pat Sievert, is thankful that more local bars are making room for comedians in their calendars.

“We’re just trying to build a space to do comedy,” Leydorf said.

While Fusion Shows brings in nationally touring comedians to the Loft and Mac’s Bar, there are no local venues regularly hosting touring comedians. Leydorf said it’s “depressing” that Connxions and Tripper’s no longer exist, because up-and-coming comedians need regular spots to hone their routines.

“We tried looking for a places to have an open-mic night each day at a different place,” Leydorf said. “You only get better by doing it.”

With the addition of Wednesdays at the Beer Grotto, there are now four days of the week where locals can catch live comedy. The Green Door hosts a comedy open mic on Sundays, and Mac’s Bar hosts its popular comedy night on Mondays. East Lansing bar Crunchy’s features local comedians on Tuesdays.

Though only in its third installment, the Beer Grotto’s comedy night seems to be getting traction. Maggie Vance, a Beer Grotto bartender — or “Beer Geek,” in Beer Grotto parlance — has worked during every show so far.

“I think it has the potential to bring a lot of people in,” Vance said. “I think it’s a really great idea. We can’t do music, because there are apartments above.”

For many local comedians, the rise of informal comedy nights has been an opportunity to try unique or experimental approaches. Comedy Coven, a trio of local female comedians, created an occult-themed comedy showcase in late 2014.

“What we’re seeing is an emergence of an underground comedy scene coming into focus,” said Tricia Chamberlain, co-founder of Comedy Coven. “What we do is kind of experimental — we do a lot of sketch, a lot of improv and a lot of games and audience participation. You are starting to see more and more these underground shows coming up to the surface.”

The group puts on a monthly show at the REO Town’s Robin Theatre. Each month has a theme, often female-centric, with titles like “The Persistence of Mammary” and “Hollywomb.” The group, which started out performing intimate house shows, attributes much of its success to being able to directly connect with its audience members, something that can be more difficult in traditional venues.

“I think Internet culture is changing how we’re being entertained,” Chamberlain said. “You can get entertainment in the palm of your hand that’s tailored to your exact wants and needs. We try to hear our audience as much as they hear us.”

Max Johnston, an MSU journalism major and aspiring local comedian, said that the informal comedy nights are a great opportunity for novice performers who might never get a shot at a legit comedy club.

“The first time I did standup was in December at the Avenue (Café),” he recalled. “It’s not a comedy open mic but just a general one. I was like, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do it.’ I spent a couple of days writing what I thought wat I thought were really funny jokes. I got up on stage and I bombed horribly. That was the hardest part. I haven’t looked back since.”

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