July 20--If anyone could do what the Comedy Attic has done, Susan Seizer wonders why there isn't a full-time comedy club in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It's a college town with smart people. More people, in fact. At the same time, comedy has never been more relevant in society, with fake news programs like Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and Internet sketch comedy like "Funny or Die."
An anthropologist like Seizer is fascinated by comedy, how an empty stage is transformed with observational humor. Then again, she knows the business side. Seizer, who teaches about comedy and performance art at Indiana University, spent four years following road comics to make a documentary film about the profession. Clubs aren't sprouting up. As she traveled the Midwest from 2008 to 2012, clubs were closing all around her as entertainment businesses struggled through the recession.
The statistics behind the growth and sudden collapse of comedy clubs in the U.S. is like an "origin myth," Seizer says in her documentary, "Road Comics: Big work on small stages." In 1980, there might have been 10 comedy clubs in the U.S. The "boom" was more like a Big Bang. In the next five years, the number grew to somewhere around 500. There was a demand for comedians to fill stages -- and the results were wholly underwhelming. Performers who could not quite call themselves artists found a way to make a buck, and club owners, who were young and energetic before the boom, became tired and burned out.
What remains are about 100 comedy clubs, give or take a few. That, in itself, makes Bloomington's Comedy Attic a rare commodity. Rarer yet, the 37-year-old club owner, Jared Thompson, is actually a fan of comedy.
He has bucked the trend of most small-town venues, aiming not for the road comics Seizer followed in her documentary, but more visible comics with TV credentials. He wants comedians who are a few years away from performing almost exclusively in theaters.
The Comedy Attic does comedy differently than Bear's Place, a Bloomington bar that was well-known for its comedy nights in the 1980s and 1990s. While a road comic might have made a couple hundred dollars a night working a room like Bear's Place, Thompson is appealing to another rank of comedian. While Bear's Place charged a cover and had no drink minimum, the Comedy Attic charges more for tickets, has a two-drink minimum and makes amateurs pay to get into the club's open mic night -- all in an effort to be able to afford to pay thousands of dollars for high-level comedians.
The atmosphere is different, too. What Thompson has created is a "captive" audience, Seizer said, a more theater-like atmosphere where audiences watch and don't call out. Bear's Place brought in Roseanne Barr, Sinbad and Paula Poundstone to play the backroom, but the audiences were rowdy. Road comics filled out the lineup.
The Comedy Attic is a small-town club in search of big-town names. If not a fast-rising talent, Thompson might pull acts who are valued because they are rarely a part of the club scene at this point in their career. For the Comedy Attic's anniversary show in September, David Koechner, the man who played sports anchor Champ Kind in the movie "Anchorman," will take the club's stage.
But regardless of the Comedy Attic's rapid rise, live comedy clubs still live in their niche. Just ask Thompson.
"People in the comedy business in New York and L.A. think we are some institution, like Nick's," Thompson said, "but if you asked people in Bloomington to list the top 10 businesses in town, we wouldn't be on the list."
More about Jared
Comcast: Thompson worked at Insight Communications until the company was purchased by Comcast in 2008. The cable giant moved his job to Fishers, so he told them to "fly a kite." He worked with his wife, Dayna, to open a comedy club. A bookstore was another option.
Tattoos: He has several, including one of Roger Ebert on his left shoulder. On his forearms are the house from the Disney movie, "Up," the Chicago Blackhawks logo with a Stanley Cup trophy, and the stairs from the Comedy Attic's logo.
Punk rock: Growing up in North Carolina, Thompson lived, at one point, in a collective with fellow punk rock enthusiasts. He worked two jobs, one in a Greek restaurant in the mall and another at an arcade, to pay the phone bill they used to book acts. He did the booking.
Lists: Thompson ranks comedy as his fourth favorite thing, behind movies, music and sports. He grew up in North Carolina, but his father was from New Castle, Indiana, so he grew up defending Bobby Knight and the IU Hoosiers. Because of his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, he loves creating lists. Most underrated films of the 2000s, for example.
Bobbleheads: There is a rather eclectic collection of bobbleheads in his green room at the Comedy Attic, which includes: Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story," Guy Noir from "A Prairie Home Companion," Bane from "The Dark Knight Rises," Walter White from "Breaking Bad," Pee-wee Herman and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.
(c)2014 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)
Visit the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) at www.heraldtimesonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services