Looking out at a room of 40 people, Dan Skaggs sighed and wondered if he was doing something wrong.
His group, OKC Comedy, had brought Los Angeles comedian Brent Weinbach to town.
When tickets to the March didn’t sell, they dropped the price to free. And they still drew only 40 people.
“That was maybe the funniest show we’ve had here,” said Skaggs, who founded the comedy collective with fellow comics Spencer Hicks and BradChad Porter back in 2008. “Everybody who came said they loved it. I just don’t know what we have to do to get audiences to show up.”
OKC Comedy brought Doug Benson to town three times (he’s already talking about coming back for “Doug Benson Day” on June 28, 2013) and sold out the City Arts Center every time.
Podcasting pioneer and stand-up Marc Maron drew such a crowd as to warrant two shows. Other big names — like Paul F. Tompkins, Kyle Kinane and Maria Bamford — sell seats, but are expensive to book.
“When we bring a headliner here to perform, we promise them a paycheck regardless of how many tickets are sold,” said Hicks. “That’s the only way we can get them here. So it’s on us to sell those tickets or eat a huge loss.”
And huge losses hurt in an industry that isn’t exactly booming locally.
Hicks works as a research assistant for a consulting firm in Norman. Porter is a landman, taking pictures of land leases statewide. Skaggs doesn’t have a day job right now, concentrating on his family and his comedy, but he used to repair industrial copy machines.
The three comedians are not wealthy, nor are they unrealistic.
But they are hopeful.
Building a scene
James Nghiem isn’t going anywhere. That’s not supposed to sound sad or defeated; it’s simply a fact. He’s been to Chicago. He’s been to L.A. Toss in New York and Austin, Texas, and you’ve covered all the bases where aspiring comedians usually go to get beyond mere aspirations.
But he doesn’t want to leave Oklahoma. He wants to help create a scene here, even if that means comedy stays a part-time enterprise.
“I want to make comedy my career, but I don’t know how to do that without moving to a bigger city,” Nghiem said. “And I don’t want to go. Maybe I’ll have to, eventually, but this place is a part of me. No place else is home.”
So he does what he can. Nghiem hosts open-mic nights at Othello’s in Norman and has been the opener and emcee at The Loony Bin. He’s played shows with national touring comics like Tig Notaro and Dat Phan, and frequently performs at OKC Comedy events.
Compared to five years ago, Nghiem said, the local scene has exploded. At that time, outside of a few minutes every other week at The Loony Bin’s open-mic nights, there was nothing.
“We love The Loony Bin. We couldn’t do what we do without them,” said Hicks. “But we’re also doing something a little different. They host some very successful road comics, but for the most part, they’re not doing the kind of alternative comedy that brought a lot of us to the stage.”
Luckily, comedy is not a zero-sum game. You can like The Loony Bin or OKC Comedy, or both or neither — but there isn’t a competition between the two.
If anything, they’re in a stable, codependent relationship. The Loony Bin sponsors many of OKC Comedy’s big shows. In turn, OKC Comedy develops the local audience for standup, thus providing more customers for The Loony Bin.
On the road
Zach Smith thought he was not long for this world. He wasn’t dying — not that he knows of, anyway — but he was ready to do something else.
After years of talking about doing comedy, he got his start at one of those Loony Bin open mics. It was four minutes of mostly fruit- and vegetable-related puns.
It felt good. “It never crossed my mind to stop after that,” Smith said. “I decided this was something I was going to do as long as I could, whenever and wherever I could.”
So far, “wherever” has Tulsa; Wichita, Kan.; and Denver. Touring helped him come to a conclusion: He wants to be a road comic.
Smith doesn’t need to get on TV or be famous. He wants to be on the road most of the year, going to clubs, stepping onstage and telling jokes.
It’s a dream he nearly burned out on. After working up to a solid 20 minutes, Smith found he was starting to hate his act. He’d said the words too many times to the same crowd, and his antipathy was palpable.
“I was getting stagnant and ate it hard for a couple of weeks, because I had no motivation to be excited about the bits,” he said. “I had to take a month off, get back to writing. And when I went up at an Air Force show with all-new stories, I loved it. It was almost a revival in me.”
Once more, Smith was enthused about comedy. In what other field would you get a personal revival that involves a story about a Toys for Tots event that suddenly became a swingers’ party?
“Oklahoma City has a very DIY attitude. If you want to do something, nobody is stopping you. There’s no guarantees it will succeed, but you can do it,” Smith said.
‘Like a drug’
There are a lot of headaches for very little reward, said Hicks. About 95 percent of his comedy life is spent doing unfunny things: working with venues, setting up open mics, writing for hours and hours.
Oh, but that other 5 percent ... “When I’m onstage, when the crowds are there and people are laughing, I live for that,” he said. “It’s like a drug, I guess. You get that taste and it’s all worth it. You get addicted and you’re willing to do a lot of things to get back up onstage and feel like that again.”
All that work benefits young comedians getting started as well. Just ask James Draper.
“Walking into a situation like OKC Comedy, I feel grateful,” Draper said. The group laid the foundation that gave him the opportunity to hone his act.
When he went onstage at Othello’s the first time, nobody could hear him. His jokes were too lengthy and convoluted. It took months of trying until he found the rhythm, the material and the presence that worked for him.
“It’s not like all the work is done already. There’s not much of a scene, but they created what’s there now,” Draper said. “And they’re not just really funny; they’re also cool and supportive.”
Saturday nights at The 51st Street Speakeasy start slow. The 6 p.m. open mic draws in a crowd of mostly comics, waiting for their chance to go on stage for a few minutes.
Before the show, Hicks sits scribbling notes. As emcee, he’ll get a few minutes here and there, but mostly, he’s the organizer.
“There’s talent here,” he said, surveying the room. “They just need stage time to get better.”
The aspiring entertainers sit nervously, mouthing their jokes from set lists or giggling with friends while downing a little liquid courage.
Some jokes are going to fall flat. Some comics will talk too loud or too fast. But every laugh they get takes them one step closer to their dream.
Hicks said the big shows are done for this year, but OKC Comedy is looking ahead to book national touring comics in 2013.
For now, the group will work where it can work, setting up local showcases and hoping to drum up interest in a fledgling comedy scene in a town that could use some laughs.
Ready to laugh?
Derek Smith, Spencer Hicks and BradChad Porter will perform at 7 p.m. Dec. 22 at the City Arts Center, 3000 General Pershing, to celebrate having survived the end of the world. Tickets are available at ticketstorm.com.