Is Detroit a joke desert? Nope, not even close. But, when it comes to stand-up in the region, most of the comedy spotlight seems to shine on suburban clubs like Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak and Joey's Comedy Shop in Livonia. Lately, however, there's been a string of new comedy events popping up in the city and bringing extra energy to an existing scene that already lives and breathes at local bars and music venues.
One of the most idiosyncratic of the young upstarts is Mothra
. It's a monthly show that takes place at PJ's Lager House on the second Monday of each month. Mothra's host and creator, Stretch Adam, also works as a cook at the venue. He describes his event as "a mutation between a showcase and an open mic."
Anyone can sign up to tell jokes, and comics have the option of going longer than the standard five minutes. Afterwards, Stretch who's got a desk and couch set up behind the microphone, invites them to have a seat and, asks them a handful of ridiculous questions.
"We have people going up into eight minutes, and we have a Letterman/Johnny Carson-style interview after everybody's set," says Stretch. "It keeps the show a little fun and people get to make up funny on their own, as well as display their written material."
To liven things up, each show's got a gag. In January, he rented a helium tank and had performers recite famous movie lines in a high-pitched squeaky voice. He's also retained a masseuse to massage the comics during interviews and hired a marching band to parade through the bar.
Mothra's lanky host has only been sharing his witty wordplay and wild anecdotes over local microphones since this past October. During that time, though, he's become a grinder, a familiar face at Hamtramck events like the New Dodge Comedy Night Open Mic
and 7 Brothers Standprov
and suburban open mics at the New Way Bar in Ferndale, The Cellar Comedy Club in St. Clair Shores, and LaffTracks in Novi.
As a newcomer to the scene, Mothra's host looks up to more established comics like Ken Witzgall, a veteran of the Chicago circuit, and local favorite Ron Taylor, who belongs to a comedy group called the Motown Laugh Kings. Stretch is also part of a crew of developing Detroit comedians that includes Brett Mercer, Zech, Lauren Booza, Travis Grand, and Andrew Sheldon.
Mercer and Zech recently held their own event, Chuckie Finster
, named after a Rugrats cartoon character, at Detroit's Recycle Here! recycling center, which they hope to make a monthly thing.
Sparring at the open mic
As the host of New Dodge's open mic, Esther Nevarez is quite familiar with Stretch and his irreverent band of friends. She admires his drive, has played Mothra herself, and says the room he's built up is representative of how the Detroit comedy scene works.
"There's not a comedy club proper in Detroit. There's a lot of people putting together showcases and rooms in Detroit," she says "and so it's more of a DIY thing going on in the city of Detroit."
An experienced local comic, Nevarez got her start taking comedy classes at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle several years ago. Her comedy is a mix of observation and experience that draws on her Mexican background. She's performed at Ridley's and Joey's in the suburbs and Detroit Comedy Underground, Tangent Gallery's Nonsense Night,
and Crack Em Up Comedy
at the Jazz Café Music Hall in Detroit, as well venues in Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids. In addition to the New Dodge, she works a day job as an audio engineer at an area marketing firm, co-hosts the Jester Comedy Showcase in Waterford where she lives, and performs with a cabaret comedy/singing group called the Laugh Riot Dolls.
The busy comic compares the open mic circuit to watching someone exercise.
"You're not watching the recital," she says. "You're watching the practice, and it's still interesting, but it's hard to judge that as somebody's finished product."
New Dodge's open mic has a certain amount of gravitas, enticing comics from Canada, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Toledo. Nevarez keeps a watchful eye on local talent, and has kind praise for many of these comedians.
"Jeff Horste is really good. Brett Mercer. Bret Hayden. Zech—just Zech. He's like Madonna.
He's just really good. Wes Ward is always there. Sam Rager is really talented. She recently opened for Cameron Esposito in Indiana, and she's really good."
Special praise is reserved for Crack Em Up Comedy's host Josh Adams, who's something of a star at New Dodge.
"They worship him," she says. "He's just blowing up right now. If he's there, I usually have him close the show and have as much time as he wants."
Funny you should mention the future
Another local comic who's got the respect of her peers is Heather Jay H.
She just kicked off a new show called Midtown Comedy Blend
at the Majestic, which aims to restore diversity in comedy in Detroit. As with many cities, African-American and white comics in Detroit tend to play to audiences from their own background, sometimes called white rooms or black rooms. H thinks it's especially pronounced here and wants to liven the scene up with a room that's welcoming to blacks and whites, gays and straights, women and men, and all sorts of other folks, with the only sticking point being that the comedians have to be really funny.
"We haven't seen that in the city since Bea's Comedy Kitchen closed down and All Jokes Aside left, which was over ten years ago," she says. "So we've been having what I call segregated comedy. We've been doing that in Detroit for far too long. It's really time to break that up."
H jumped into stand-up about a decade ago. A film critic looking to get her screenwriting picked up, she saw comedy as a fast ticket into the entertainment field. As a tenderfoot comic, she began hitting clubs with her friend Clayton Thomas, who's now making a name for himself in L.A. and has a show in production with Playboy TV.
Her first performance happened at an east side bar called 486. It's an experience she describes as both "awful" and "intoxicating." She wrangled roughly 200 open mics her first year. Eventually she started performing at Joey's and Ridley's, honing a style she describes as "intellectually hood."
"I will talk about ignorant stuff….I will talk about shooting the club up," H says. "I talk about men and women. I talk about motherhood. I talk about these crazy streets, about what goes on as we leave our houses. I think there's a disconnect with a lot of America. They don't want to accept what's really happening."
Nowadays she's touring all over the Midwest and taking her show to hot spots like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and L.A. She expects to be on the road about 25 weeks this year.
For H, the newer spots opening up in Hamtramck, Midtown, and downtown, which she attributes to gentrification, are exciting. Of the new wave of comedians, she's impressed with Nicki Wright, Josh Adams, and Laura Witkowski, who with Ray Hollifield runs Ray and Laura's Comedy Showcase
at Small's in Hamtramck.
The seasoned comic says there's an eagerness among Detroit veterans—people like Coolaide, Dave Landau, Connie Ettinger, Mike Stanley, and Bill Bushart—to mentor the younger folks in a way that wasn't happening when she was climbing the ropes in the mid-2000s. To be clear, that doesn't mean coddling; it means tough love and instilling good comedy values by holding the newcomers to the fire in an honest way.
H sees this mix of enthusiastic new talent and community-minded veterans as a potent combination that bodes well for the local stand-up scene.
"In the late 90s and early 2000s, everybody came to Detroit to recruit," H says. "BET came to Detroit. Showtime came to Detroit. Everybody. Comedy Central. They all did showcases here."
"I think we're getting back to that," she adds. "We're able to make each other better. Once our comedy scene gets consistently dope, then we'll be able to get that."
David Sands is a Detroit-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @DSandsDetroit.