Serious business

Facing contention, controversy, and increasingly celebrated toxicity, some in OKC comedy are working to create a more inclusive and diverse scene with new showcases and open mics.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A deadly, global pandemic sweeps in and threatens to punish anyone that gathers together with friends or crowds. All the thoughtful, responsible people worry about losing everything, so they stay home to try to protect their scene and their community. All the, let’s say, “not” thoughtful or responsible people don’t care, and they keep gathering and crowding anyway.

They take over, they begin redirecting the entire course of the scene, and the thoughtful, responsible people still lose everything because they stepped away to protect it.

Funny, right? You can almost hear the rimshot.

Now, as the comedy community nationwide continues this schism, and as performers from upstarts to blockbusters dig their heels into comedy as a platform for transphobia, misogyny, and general bad-faith pot-stirring, a number of local names in OKC are launching new showcases focused on inclusion, diversity and laughs over applause.

Philosophical holes

BradChad Porter has been a lightning rod within Oklahoma’s comedy scene for around two decades now, often helping to drive the community forward while collecting friends (and at least a few enemies) from the various ranks and styles of local comedy.

And it should come as no surprise that someone who has made a name for himself using his words has a way with them.

“Some of these people just don’t have the experience to manage some of the issues that come up when you’re on stage talking about your butthole,” Porter said.

Pure poetry.

“I think that two things have created this moment,” he said. “The pandemic opened the door to some less-ethical booking but also just the sort of convulsions of the culture over the past five or six or seven years now. I feel like we’re losing the philosophical argument a little bit.”

If that all sounds pretty heady for a conversation about professional joke-telling — and for someone that just dropped an unprompted anus reference — it’s because Porter takes the state of the scene and the safety of his friends within it very seriously, even if he’s clearly uncomfortable being serious.

“I don’t want to just be a blanket naysayer, though, because some of those people are just inexperienced and are learning the same lessons that we all learned along the way,” he said. “But it’s also very gross out there. I’m disgusted by some of what I’m seeing in local comedy and national comedy. I’m disgusted by what we’ve maybe become.”

“Actively Harmful”

What comedy has “maybe become” is controversial in its own right. Is it the last bastion of truly free, absolutely unfettered speech, now beset on all sides by political correctness? Or is it a way to make people laugh and enjoy themselves?

That second option has seemed to be in the minority these past few years, replaced by a righteously indignant parade of speech-for-speech’s-sake performers led by a certain multi-millionaire and his persistent anti-trans tirades.

“We call them ‘COVID Comics.’ In Tulsa, they call it the ‘Class of 2020,’” said Amanda Kerri, a veteran OKC comedian and herself a trans woman. “These guys that a normally healthy scene would marginalize took control of ours and they’ve had a stranglehold on it since. More experienced comedians weren’t there to educate, give advice, and provide a check, and they ran wild. I went from being a pretty generic liberal comic to the most left-wing person in the scene, which is crazy.”

But politics, problematic language, and inane, worn-out takes against good taste aren’t the most concerning issues. Those elements have been in play in any comedy scene as long as anyone can remember. That’s not what has someone like Porter, a 20-year veteran of the scene, feeling disgusted and worried.

“A huge portion of the local scene isn’t just toxic. It’s actively harmful,” Kerri said. “There have always been cliques and kind of separate scenes in a way, but this is much more stark. Before it was more about styles and such, but now it’s about how it’s legit dangerous. People are getting violent and abusive.”

This all came to an unfortunate head when Kerri decided to come forward about being allegedly sexually assaulted by another comic, a decision that led to rifts and divisions across the scene.

“Much of the scene blacklisted me,” Kerri said. “They called it drama and wanted to act like it didn’t happen.”

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Berlin Green
Amanda Kerri


On the heels of these widening chasms and increasingly harmful behaviors in OKC’s comedy community, another wrench was thrown into the machinery.

The Loony Bin, that stalwart, omni-present, sometimes stubbornly traditionalist club that had come to practically define the full scope of OKC comedy, closed its doors in October 2022. After twenty years, owners Larry Marks and Terri Libbey finally stepped away from the scene that, for better or worse, they helped to create.

“I grew up in The Loony Bin, and it did help me grow as a comic and relate to people,” James Nghiem, longtime OKC comedian and creator of indie label Robot Saves City, said. “But honestly, I don’t really think that I was ever the right kind of comic for The Loony Bin. Like my voice and my interests aren’t really suited for whatever kind of crowd they drew.”

Even if The Loony Bin and its audiences were never on the cutting edge of progressive or “outsider” comedy,  the venue’s policies of safety and respect, as well as the stern, parental presence of Marks and Libbey, did well to keep the toxicity at bay.

“Whenever all these accusations started coming up about people, I felt an obligation to reach out to places and just say, ‘Here are the problems, this is what I’m hearing,’” Porter said. “The most receptive were Larry and Terri. They were the most militant about it, just like, ‘Not on this stage, never, not once.’ And that’s going to be missed. They would be a force for good.”

A Tale of Two Scenes

With abuse going ignored, toxicity running unchecked, and a Loony Bin-shaped hole in OKC, conscientious comics like Porter, Nghiem, and Caleb Collins faced a crisis of confidence in the scene, while others like Kerri faced actual fear for their safety.

The hearts and souls of Oklahoma comedy were backed against a brick wall, but of course a brick wall is exactly where most comics feel right at home.

So they’re building their own.

“They can do their own thing,” Kerri said of the angry, shit-stirring comics and their strongholds around the city. “We’ll rebuild a scene that is more safe, inclusive, and artistic.”

All of these names have been hard at work on exactly that, with Porter launching Model 9 Entertainment and bringing comedians to Rodeo Cinema, Nghiem expanding Robot Saves City into a full-fledged, traveling pop-up showcase, and Collins partnering with craft brewery Fair-Weather Friend on an already-acclaimed new open mic.

“It is creating two separate kind of worlds,” Porter said. “Absolutely it is. And I really think that the future of comedy, if it’s not going to be this disgusting, gross cabal, I think it’s more female, and I think it’s way more diverse. And I’m going to lean as hard as I possibly can into that.”

“Bad Headlines”

That’s all well and good, of course, but how do you navigate the waters of trying to increase and highlight diversity when all of the news out of Oklahoma is so horrifying, not just about its comedy scene, but the state’s general disdain for the gay, trans, female, and minority populations?

“We need to be realistic about artists’ opinions of Oklahoma,” said Chad Whitehead, operator and head talent buyer at OKC’s Tower Theatre, one of the largest venues showcasing major national comedy talents like Craig Ferguson, Gary Gulman, and Marc Maron. “We suffer from the bad headlines of our poor politics, which is a turn-off for many artists and makes booking more difficult.”

Likewise, Porter reached out to the major touring networks that he’s worked with in the past to find some more uniquely funny, diverse voices for Model 9’s new showcase at Rodeo Cinema.

Even with a clear aim at bringing in more black, female, and trans comedians to OKC, he’s said that it’s been a battle to convince many of them to brave this market.

“It’s going to be an uphill climb,” he told me. “And even if it goes sideways, I’m leaning into this philosophy that this is who I want.”

Robot Saves City

As far as James Nghiem is concerned, all the anger and controversy-courting and lines in the sand have just gotten stale and boring.

He’s not interested in all of that anymore.

“Coming out of the pandemic, with everybody hating each other, and me hating everybody for a good long time, you know, I would like to just not do that anymore,” he said. “I feel like people can come to a show and we can share the same space now and sit in the same room together.”

Since launching the Robot Saves City pop-up shows early this year in places like Vanessa House Brewing and 51st Street Speakeasy, Nghiem’s focus has been on spotlighting the kind of left-field, weirdo comedy that he’s always enjoyed and explored.

“I’ve realized that the comics that I’ve hung out with over the last 15 or 16 years,” he said, “we all kind of have a certain voice that really jibes together.”

That voice that Nghiem and the comics he respects have cultivated and developed tends to be, as he puts it himself, “nerdy and lame,” rather than trying to be “cool.”

“I just think the media has made comedy too cool,” he said. “Like how being a chef is too cool now, comedy is just too cool. It’s like, no, that’s just some guy that likes to cook and people like his food, and this guy just likes to make people laugh. That’s why they do what they do.”

His goal is for audiences to genuinely laugh at a Robot Saves City show, not to just applaud someone’s ideological ramblings.

“Comedy isn’t something you enjoy passively, especially live comedy,” Nghiem said. “But it can’t be just, like, shitting on people constantly. I want to treat the audience with respect and treat the regulars with respect and treat the conversation with respect. Like, somebody has to give a shit about everybody. If that has to be me right now, then it’s me right now.”

Model 9 Entertainment

“James does not mind at all being the weird guy doing the weird show,” BradChad Porter said through a laugh about his close friend. “I’ll do that stuff, too, but I’ll also do Greg Fitzsimmons and I’ll also do more accessible stuff.”

Porter has long been someone that the scene has looked up to and looked to for direction, whether he liked it or not, and when things started looking particularly dark for the community that he’s loved, he had a moment of serious fight-or-flight.

“My heart was broken,” he said. “When I learned that there were women who tried to start comedy in this city who couldn’t last six weeks because of the toxic bullshit that was happening, like, my first thought was that I was just done. You can’t invest a decade of your life into something and just watch it turn to absolute garbage.”

But that attempt to walk away from comedy completely didn’t last very long.

“There’s this thing, whatever it is. Whatever unhealthy, horrifying demon from hell that pulls you into these bad decisions, and it was like, ‘You just start again. You do what you do every time. You do what you always do. You just start all over again.’ So I opened up my laptop and found the branding elements to a project that Josh Lathe and I started a couple years back called Model 9 Entertainment.”

With Model 9, Porter has taken the reins on his own corner of the scene and is working with a stable of friends and respected comics (including Amanda Kerri) to correct the course of comedy in Oklahoma City.

Already, they’ve brought national names like Fitzsimmons and Sam Tallent to Rodeo Cinema, as well as working with local names like Damon Detroit, Kalen Reece, and Kerri, who is working closely with Porter on booking and who finally returned to the mic after nearly half a year away.

The Fight

For Porter, as with all of these comics, the way forward right now looks to be carving out their own spaces and re-creating the kind of scene that they want to populate.

A scene where comics talk, where comics challenge one another to be better, and where comics, or even just people, don’t live and die by the fight.

“I’m tired of the fight,” Porter said. “And I don’t like the fight. I don’t like where we’re having the fight, or the venue that we’re having this fight in. This fight is supposed to happen at the table upstairs at the Comedy Cellar, or in the side room at Othello’s while somebody else is on stage. We’re supposed to be fighting these things out back there. But what we’ve done is, during the pandemic, we created this vacuum that got filled with the wrong people. We’re not having that conversation anymore. We’re posting about it on the internet and not talking to each other at all.”

Porter still believes that comedy can be a positive way to get outside of yourself and your own head and to connect with other strange misfits that maybe share your own weird perspective on the world.

He wants to see the scene return to that kind of community.

“I think that we all used to use comedy as therapy because we were broken and sad,” he said. “And it helps you to identify with other people who are also broken and sad, because, honestly, most people are broken.”

The hope of people like Porter, like Nghiem, like Kerri, and a surprising number of others, is that comedy can still be a place to lose yourself and just laugh, to not just rant and complain about people you don’t like or about what you can’t say anymore. It can still be a place to discuss and address the real, gaping holes in our world.

Even if that’s just Porter talking about his butthole.

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