By Eric Gallippo

Comedy in greater Lansing

“Did you see my smiling Kudu?” asks Frank Stevens on a late January afternoon, nodding toward where two animal heads sporting giant neon sunglasses and grinning horn-to-horn are mounted on a wall.

Stevens explains that he killed the animals on a hunting excursion in Africa and then had a taxidermist plant the permanent, joker-like smiles on their faces. Then comes the punch line: “I wanted to write the trip off.”

Today, the heads greet customers to Stevens’ Connxtions Comedy Club, a Lansing institution that has been serving laughs for almost 25 years.

Whether the Kudu are funny, they do help headlining comedian Kevin Bozeman get some laughs later that night. After taking the stage, the Chicago comedian warmed up the small, Wednesday-night crowd by “hating on Lansing.”

“This is a shitty-ass comedy club,” Bozeman said, smiling. “You see the deer head out there?”

As Bozeman works the room, Stevens’ spiel from earlier in the day about live comedy being a “different beast” than on TV is evident. In between his prepared jokes, the comic makes vulgar advances at two older women seated in front and takes swipes at Lansing, the club and crowd, sometimes pausing to grin and stare following lines like, “C’mon 19 people. I can make you feel like 27 if I work at it.”

But it’s not always so dead at the club. During a Saturday night show a few weeks later, a packed house — buzzed from the start — blew party horns, shouted at the stage and maintained a raucous demeanor throughout the evening.

Anthony Nagera, a large man of Mexican heritage — a detail, along with his peacock tattoo, each of the comics riffed on — sat in his usual spot near the stage, begging for attention. "I love that up there, every time I come, I sit up front just for that reason," he says.

Never before, though, had the glare from the spotlight been so harsh on him. He took it in stride. "I feel honored a little bit," he says with a laugh. "It’s a good time every time you’re here, I like the atmosphere."

Comic Jason’s Russell’s high-energy act, which incorporated physical comedy with relationship jokes and racial humor, seemed to play well with the crowd. "People come in and come back for the live performance," Russell said after the show.

"These days they need it," added emcee James Craven.

No matter whom you talk to, it seems like more and more people could use a good laugh these days. And the folks in this story hope they can give it to them.

Well connected

It doesn’t take long talking with Stevens to know he’s serious about the funny business, emphasis on both words, as he cracks jokes while sharing marketing strategies. “There’s a science to what we do,” he said, sitting behind a desk in a large office at the front of the club. “It’s not just ‘put a stool and a mic on stage and turn a spotlight on and there you go.’”

Stevens, 51, took over the one-time bowling alley (where he had first worked as a pin-setter) at 2900 N. East St., and transformed it into a nightclub in 1984. He designed and built the 400-seat club himself, using reclaimed materials from the lanes. Originally a “meat-market” bar featuring live music, he brought in comedy at the recommendation of then-business partner, Jon Yoder. The nights were popular, often selling out, and before long Connxtions switched to comedy full time. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, comedy took off, and the club, which Stevens believes to be one of the first in the state, was in full swing. He brought in big names like Tommy Chong, Drew Carey and Bobcat Goldthwait.

Business has dipped since those haydays — Stevens says a crowd of about 250 is a good night lately — but it seems to be improving, up 23 percent from this time last year.

He attributes the club’s success to experience, customer service and maintaining a broad patron base, as well as learning from mistakes back when it was affordable to do so, a luxury unavailable in today’s market. “At least 20 have come in and tried to do it,” Stevens says. “I can’t believe anyone would try to do it in this climate.”

While bringing in the right national acts at the right time is important, another key to success is keeping the local talent pool stocked, and Connxtions works to cultivate new acts through its Wednesday open-mics for new comics and Thursday-night jokeoffs for audience members.

The club is also wrapping up its first-ever comedy class, taught by working comic and former club manager Kevin Zeoli. Over five weeks, Zeoli teaches students about the industry, taking a joke from the page to the stage. Nobody signs up for a comedy class without thinking they’re funny, and Zeoli wants students to nurture that by looking at different styles of writing and thinking about stage presence and facial gestures. “There’s a lot that goes into telling a joke than just telling a joke,” Zeoli says.

Zeoli’s students will take their final exam on stage March 11.

For new comics, the main thing is spending time and getting comfortable on stage. “If you start any new job, in your first week you’re uncertain,” Zeoli says, but after a few weeks, you get the hang of it. “It’s the same thing in comedy. We just have less opportunity to get in front of a crowd.”

One of Zeoli’s students, Karen Walton, skipped her PTO meeting on a recent Wednesday to perform at open mic night. The stayat-home mom from Owosso did about five minutes of dysfunctional-family humor (all of which she claims to be true), ragging on her unhygienic stepdaughter and hyper-procreating daughter. Walton started performing last August as a way to get out of the house. She’s performed about 14 times since then, and says she still gets jittery before going on. “I was as nervous this time as a I was the first time,” she said. “It’s kind of like being a virgin.”

On this night, she felt good about her performance, but that’s not always the case. “When they’re not laughing, it’s hard to walk off the stage and feel good,” Walton said.

While Walton schmoozes at the bar with the other comics and staff, the conversation turns to the absence of one of her classmates, Vickie VanAlsteen, a Connxtions regular who has been coming to the club nearly every week for 16 years, along with her mother, Edna Whittemore.

VanAlsteen, 61, says she started attending shows in March 1993 to get out of the house while her husband worked evenings. Her mother started accompanying her a few months later. VanAlsteen has collected fliers and brochures from nearly every show she’s attended and keeps a running database of how many times she has seen each comic. During Bozeman’s set in January, it was she and Whittemore, 86, whom he singled out and made obscene passes at. But VanAlsteen wasn’t rattled. She’d seen Bozeman at least a half-dozen times before, talking with him after some of the shows.

After a few successes in the Connxtions joke-off contests, she decided she would like to spend some more time on stage and signed up for Zeoli’s class. “I thought it would be fun, and I wanted to see what it’d be like to do an act,” she says. “To see if I could actually do it after so many years.”

Her first time on stage, the crowd seemed to eat it up, laughing at her jokes about telling her husband-to-be to “put out or get out” of his own car, and ripping out the uterus of the woman who first told her how magical childbirth was.

Jokes and Joe

While it may be the longest running and most successful, Connxtions isn’t the only comedy game in town, especially for local talent. The third Thursday of every month, amateurs enter the comedy ring at Cappuccino Café on Lake Lansing Road. A crowd of about 30 spectators sat sipping java during February’s show, treated to eight routines, lasting anywhere from five to 15 minutes.

Nearly all of the comics peeked at notes during their allotted time, almost always making light of their crutch. But at a free show, heckling isn’t really an issue.

Most of the bits had something to do with sex, dating or relationships, often pushing the boundaries of humor. Some comedians used a topical approach, touching on the election, the economy and celebrity gossip.

A few comics had well-constructed routines, while others fed more off whims. Ed Glazer, a grad student at Michigan State University, gave a smooth, measured performance, while Eddie Cane, from Flint, incorporated improvisation into his outrageous riffs on bedroom activities.

Noah Ullman and Abby Brengle watched the hilarity together for their third time. The two say they enjoyed the show but understood the risk of wasting an evening watching amateurs. Schedenfreud, however, can be its own reward. "It’s almost better when they bomb," Ullman says. "It’s like watching ‘The Office.’"

And a bomb’s not always a bomb. Adam Lark, a 23-year-old senior at Michigan State University studying journalism, recounts a time he thought he blew it, but got positive feedback after the show. During a set at the Cappuccino Café, he made a joke about George W. Bush’s exit speech, in which the president conceded to making a “few mistakes.” “Really, a few mistakes?” went the joke. “Kind of how Hitler killed a few people and Enron laid off a few employees? I think the only mistake is that Barbara didn’t use a coat hanger.” “It sucked the life out of the room,” Lark says. “Then, after the show, people were like, ‘That was a ballsy joke, man.’”

In the end, the young comedian was happy he’d taken the risk.

Organizer Joe Brandon says one of the true values of the night is its emphasis on rookies. "It’s a great format for up-andcoming comedians," he says.

While other venues might allow for only five minutes, the Cappuccino Café event gives novice comics up to 15 minutes to hone their craft. "It’s for them to build some time to get better," Brandon says.

Brandon, 48, started doing stand-up after graduating acting school, doing feature and emcee gigs at Connxtions. In the late ‘90s he performed with a group called the “Rough Riders” at Mac’s Bar and the old Small Planet. He started the comedy nights at Cappuccino Café last October as a comedy clash with guest judges, but he says now he’s moving away from competition. “We all hang out together,” he says. “It’s more of a fun thing.”

Yo mama

For Kari Ryan, comedy’s more fun when it’s on the fly. A senior majoring in film studies at MSU, Ryan joined Your Mom Improv, a student group comedy troupe, in her sophomore year and now serves as president.

“I’ve never personally done stand-up, I just get the feeling that it’s very rehearsed,” Ryan says. “We would do this open mic night every so often, and I would just hear the same jokes over and over again, and it would be tiresome and boring. With improv, it’s completely different every single time, and you have to really be on your toes and listen to your fellow performers.”

The seven-member group stages two major shows a year, and also works with other student groups to emcee or open events. On March 28, the group will host its second “Comedy Soup” improv event, featuring troupes from Ohio State University, Indiana University, Case Western and more, at MSU’s International Center.

The group rehearses twice a week, working out the basic guidelines for the different games they’ll play on stage (similar in format to the popular TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway”).

One of the more popular bits is a Your Mom original called “Devil on the Shoulder,” in which a person goes into a job interview with only the bad half of his conscious to guide him.

Having acted out botched job interviews in front of crowds as big as 400, Ryan’s confident when it comes time to enter the workforce, she’ll be a better interview, listener and team member after learning to make people laugh with Your Mom.

“When I first started, it was really nerveracking,” Ryan said. There’s a lot of pressure. You don’t’ know what you’re going to be saying or doing. It’s definitely helped my public speaking skills; I’m a lot more comfortable in front of crowds.”

(Joe Torok contributed to this story).

Upcoming comedy events:

Connxtions comedy class final exam 8 p.m. March 11 Connxtions, 2900 N. East St., Lansing $8 (517) 374-HAHA

Cappuccino Café comedy night 8 p.m. March 19 1500 W. Lake Lansing Road, Lansing (517) 333-5961