JOKES ON US
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Upcoming comedy events:
Connxtions comedy class final exam 8 p.m. March 11 Connxtions, 2900 N. East St., Lansing $8 (517) 374-HAHA www.connxtionscomedyclub.com