By Allan I. Ross

Widening the spotlight on Lansing's stand-up comedy scene

I butchered the hell out of the first joke I ever tried to tell. I was in second grade, and I learned it at the bus stop. For the punch line, a mouse is supposed to belch, rip a fart and do an Elvis Presley-like delivery of “I’m all shook up.” I raced home to tell my dad and when I got to the end, I forced a tiny burp, squeezed my palm under my armpit and sang, “A-mush-a-cup.” I burst out laughing. My father asked me if I had understood the joke; I admitted I had no idea what I was saying, I just thought it sounded funny. When he burst into laughter, it was my turn to fall silent. I was 7, and I’d already been shut down by my first heckler. My idiocy, I realized humbly, had been even funnier than the joke.

A couple Mondays ago, more than 30 years later after that inauspicious performance, I was sitting in the crowd at Mac’s Bar in Lansing. It was stand-up open mic night and I had signed up for a five-minute set. I’d never done this before, it was practically on a whim, and my nerves were really starting to kick in. The guy on stage was good — he was playing guitar and singing dirty songs — and I was up next. What the hell had I gotten myself into? The guitar guy finished, the MC popped up to thank him, and then I heard him call my name …

It’s a good time to be a stand-up comedy fan in the Lansing area. Connxtions Comedy Club on the north side brings in nationally touring comedians for four-night runs each week. The Wharton Center on the campus of Michigan State University attracts high-profile comedians like Daniel Tosh and Mike Birbiglia for one-night stands. And then there are the three bars on Michigan Avenue that, over the last year, have added regular open mic comedy nights: Comedy Night at the Green Door on Sundays; Mac’s Monday Comedy Night at Mac’s Bar; and the Church of Comedy on the first Sunday of every month at the Avenue Café.

A year ago, the Green Door was closed on Sundays because it was too slow. But co-owner Jennifer Costigan said she’s seen business on that day go “from one extreme to the other” since she approved open mic comedy night.

“It’s working out great for us,” Costigan said. “And it fits our live entertainment theme.”

Open mic nights allow bar owners the one-two punch of free entertainment and a built-in audience for the medium, which is still a rather uncommon art form. And that’s great, as long as you have a comedian who can make people laugh.

“Hello. This is my first time doing stand-up. My friend’s a comedian and he gave me three pieces of advice. He said No. 1, don’t invite your friends. So, do I have any friends out there?” About 10 people applaud out of about 40; it sounds like a lot. “OK, No. 2, he told me, don’t get drunk.” I take a beat, and look down at the beer in my hand. “Oh, and that reminds me, thanks for the shot.” I wave to a friend at the bar. “And finally, he told me not to masturbate before I went up. He said, ‘You can use that energy.’” I pause, just a couple of chuckles. Too far?

The open mics have allowed local aspiring comedians Dan Currie and Mark Roebuck (who also run Mac’s night), Jason Carlen (Green Door) and Melik Brown (the Avenue) to build a stand-up community. It brings together all types of comedians, from the guys just looking to have fun to those who want to be the next Kevin Hart.

“We’re really focused on helping people polish their talent,” said Currie, 23. “I’ve been seeing people get better by leaps and bounds in a very short amount of time.”

“And we’re building that comedy fanbase,” said Roebuck, 28, who trained at the improv incubator Second City in Novi. He also co-hosts the comedy event with Currie, the two playing off each other like an R-rated Smothers Brothers routine. “The more open mics you have, the better it is for everyone involved. People really seem to catching on.”

None of the four earn any money from comedy. They do it out of mutual respect for each other and stand-up comedy as an art form. The format is simple: Show up at an event, tell one of the hosts that you’re interested in performing, and you might get put on the list for next week. Everyone gets five minutes, and you get the warning light when you’ve got a minute left.

“We’re starting to get so many, though, I’m starting to have to turn people away,” Currie said. “I hate doing that, but it’s a testament to how many comedians want to perform here in Lansing. Not everyone who wants to perform here is from the area.”

Some travel from Grand Rapids, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Ohio to perform at Mac’s. That’s a long way for an unpaid gig, but that’s how nearly every comedian starts building material. It takes even the best comedian months to develop a solid few minutes. Frank Stevens, owner/operator of Connxtions, said headliners at the paid gigs that come through his club usually have about two hours of tested material for their acts, even if they only use one hour of it on any given night.

“They never know what jokes are going to work and which aren’t,” Stevens said.

“It’s my birthday today. Thank you. Does anyone else here get that birthday Facebook wall bomb? Where all these people you barely know try to find creative ways to say happy birthday? It’s like, thanks, I barely know you and now I can’t delete you. Great. So anyway, I share a birthday now with the new royal baby. Princess Kate gave birth today. Man, that kid’s got it made, right? But I tell you something, he will have something in common with every child who is born in Detroit: He will never see his parents work a day in his life.”

After Stevens got out of the military in 1979 (he had served in a Special Forces unit in the jungles of Panama), he bought a bowling alley on Lansing’s north side in 1979 and transformed it into Connxtions Comedy Club in 1985. Stevens, 58, still looks like he could bench press a Buick, and he’s got a jaunty, alpha male-ness to his carriage. He doesn’t see the open mics around town as competition — he calls them a “necessary evil” — but his business savvy won’t permit him to overlap set lists with them.

“We run a professional show here,” Stevens said. “About 98 percent of my business is couples, and everything about this building — the lights, the sound system, the actual layout of the room — has been designed to create the best venue for stand-up comedy to be performed. There’s a science to it. And we’ve got lots of upgrades coming soon that will make it even better.” Stevens also owns Connxtions’ sister club in Toledo, which is closed for renovations, but he admitted he didn’t know yet if it will reopen as a comedy club or as something else.

In a professional show, Stevens said customers are strategically positioned around the room to maximize mirth: “Laughter is really contagious, so you have to be careful of how you seat people near each other.” Then an emcee will perform about 10 minutes of material before the featured act is introduced. The feature gets about 30 to 45 minutes to really get the crowd loosened up, then the emcee comes back to introduce the headliner, who goes for an hour.

Stevens’ headliners are specifically chosen to match Lansing’s distinctive sensibilities by the talent-buying company Funny Business, his former business partners in Connxtions. John Yoder founded the company in Grand Rapids in 1985, the same year Stevens was starting out, and has grown to represent talent in 70 U.S. cities. Yoder´s sons Eric, Michael and Jamison are also in the business, which cultivates comedic talent from open mic showcases to emcee gigs to featured acts to headliners, and pairs that talent with appropriate venues along the way.

Although most of the acts that come to Connxtions aren’t famous yet, they’re getting the job done.

“The best is when people tell me how hard they laughed at a comedian, but then they can’t remember the name,” Stevens said. “These folks are good, but it takes a lot of work to get name recognition.”

Stevens cites Michael Kosta and Mike Green as two of those “oh-that-guy” comics that regularly kill at Connxtions. Over his 28 years in the business, he’s booked big acts like Jay Leno and Emo Philips, and watched Michigan natives Tim Allen and John Heffron launch to fame shortly after stints at his club. Stevens also used to be Drew Carrey’s collegiate agent. When asked if there are any local up-and-comers that could go big, he names Fred Potter and Rico Bruce Wayde.

“And Dwayne Gill,” Stevens added. “He has a unique perspective on life, but he also has the maturity to play the game. This is a business and he gets that. Some guys just want to go up and be the local yukster, but not Dwayne. He’s a professional. Oh yeah, he’s also a police officer.”

Somewhere, a writer for “Beverly Hills Cop IV” got his wings.

“When I entered the force, I found myself surrounded by all these jaded, cynical individuals,” Gill, 49, said. “I did not want that to happen to me. I wanted to find an activity to keep me upbeat, and I found comedy. It’s a good outlet for the stress of being a police officer.”

After the Detroit joke, a woman in the front row protests loudly, says she’s from Detroit. I look at her — she’s young and white.

“You are not from Detroit,” I tell her. “Where are you from?”

“I was born in Detroit,” she says.

“Yeah, but where did you grow up?”

“East Detroit,” she says sheepishly.

“See? That is not Detroit. Hey, wait a second, it’s not even East Detroit anymore. It’s Eastpointe now, am I right? Your city was so ashamed to be associated with Detroit it changed its name. I hate when people say they’re from Detroit when they’re really not. That’s like Neil Armstrong saying he’s from the moon. You may live near a desolate wasteland and occasionally hop in your well-secured vehicle with your windows rolled up and doors locked for a quick excursion, then skedaddle back home at top speed. But that doesn’t mean you’re from there.”

Gill has gone from the Marines to the Michigan State Police to stages of comedy clubs and banquet halls. He started doing open mics in Royal Oak 11 years ago and performed at Connxtions as part of his touring. He worked his way up from emcee to featured act and recently made the transition to “corporate comedy,” performing clean comedy sets for private parties. He’s won numerous comedy awards and has hosted comedy shows on satellite radio’s Raw Dog station.

“I’m looking to retire from the force in a couple years, so I’m definitely looking at New York and L.A. as places to grow my comedy career afterwards,” Gill said. “At this point, the day job is just getting in my way.”

Robert Jenkins, 30, also has an interesting 9-to-5-er, but he’s more than happy to let that keep paying the bills. The open mic regular is a lawyer, which seems to set the stage for a litany of lawyer jokes.

“Of course I have those, but so does everyone else,” Jenkins said. “I mostly talk about being 30, being married, stuff that’s easy to relate to.”

Jenkins realized he had a talent for being funny, of all places, on Facebook, where he would leave clever messages on his college friends’ walls. Someone suggested he give stand-up a whirl, and he took the Mac’s stage for the first time a little over a year ago.

“I’ve loved stand-up comedy my whole life, and now that I’m doing it, I see how difficult it really is,” Jenkins said. “The key, I’ve found, is finding a funny way to deal with difficult things.”

I shift into gear with a little racial humor.

“My wife is a beautiful French black woman. Me, I’m half Jewish. Let’s do the math, shall we? Black. Jewish. French. That’s like a perfect storm of everything the Nazis hated. If those guys ever made a comeback, our children would be screwed. A black Jew? My poor kids. They’re going to have to sit at the back of the oven. Hey, I read YouTube comments.”

“Everyone that’s here is doing it because they have a passion for comedy,” said Carlen, who organizes the open mic night at the Green Door. “You need to have that passion or you won’t last long. I got into this because Dan spurred me into it.”

Besides stand-up, Carlen, 34, is also a stage actor, and has participated in many shows around town, including performances at Lansing Community College, Starlight Dinner Theatre and Riverwalk. For Brown, performing stand-up comedy grew out of his affinity for performing live. He bounced around art forms — modeling, acting, producing, performing music — until settling on comedy last year; the Church of Comedy started in June 2012.

“It’s way easier than trying to make a movie or put on a hip-hop show,” Brown said. “All you need is a microphone and a spotlight.”

Brown, 44, said he found solidarity in the stand-up world he didn’t find in the other entertainment communities. His material has shifted since he started from having an angry persona (think Lewis Black) to a more subdued delivery.

“I realized if I wanted to entertain, I needed to get off my soapbox,” he said. “Once I stepped aside and let the material stand on its own, my comedy took off in a whole new direction. I had a show the day after the Paula Deen blowup, and it was one of the easiest, funniest shows I’ve done. Life is funny enough — most of this material writes itself.”

I see the flashing light — I’ve made it four minutes, time to wrap it up. I try to crank out one more joke, but it dies. It’s about how lots of people were smoking pot at Common Ground and I was wondering how they snuck it past the TSA-like pat down squad at the entrance.

“Ever smoke weed that tastes like ass?” I said. “Now you know why.” Crickets. “That’s my time folks, thanks so much.”

The emcee comes up, I hand off the mic and I walk off the stage in a bit of a daze to a round of applause. Wow, I think. That was it. I really did it. And I even got laughs — in the right places, it seemed like. So this means one of two things: I’m either getting better, or my idiocy knows no bounds.

Either way, it’s probably best not to think about it.