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COMEDY FEATURE: Funny Business: Where to find comedy in Rochester

by Jesse Hanus

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The Rochester stand-up comedy scene has been growing recently, in regards to audience size, the number of events, and the caliber of comedians coming to town. While many Rochesterians may not have attended so much as a comedy open-mic night - and there are several that take place every week - Rochester was still able to support not one, but two stand-up comedy competitions this year, one of them drawing nearly 100 comics from around Western New York.

According to some of the organizers of the local stand-up scene, Rochester is home to about 50 aspiring comics who are willing to step up on stage, alone, in front of a crowd of anywhere from two to 200 people, and attempt to coax some laughter out of their audience. For some it's a dream. For some it's an art. For some it's therapy. And while there are the occasional nightmare gigs where nothing goes right, they keep at their craft, looking for laughs wherever they can earn them.

The stand-up stages of Rochester

The weekly comedy open mics at the Alexander Street location of Boulder Coffee Co. have been going on for more than seven years and feature about 15 comics each week, though many more than that show up. Depending on the night, anywhere from 20 to 70 audience members are in the seats. The Park Avenue Boulder is a newer venue, having only hosted weekly open-mic comedy nights since September. These shows get about 10 comics and an average of 20 to 30 people in the seats. Since it's a smaller venue, the room still seems full.

There are also open-mic comedy shows on the first Wednesday of the month at Writers & Books on University Avenue, at which all material must be clean, and on the first Tuesday of the month at 58 Main Restaurant in Brockport.

In addition to open-mic nights, there are two venues in Rochester dedicated to hosting local and national stand-up acts: Last Laff Bar & Grill on Lake Avenue in Charlotte, and The Comedy Club on Empire Boulevard in Webster.

Vinnie Paulino is the host at Last Laff, which opened in June of this year. He refers to Last Laff as a "comedy room." The venue is a full-service restaurant during the week and hosts live comedy shows on the weekends, two on Friday and two on Saturday.

The Comedy Club is an actual comedy club, as it is open specifically for comedy performances (although it serves food during shows as well). It is attached to Daisy Dukes bar and hosts one show on Thursdays, two shows on Fridays, and two shows on Saturdays, with occasional shows on Wednesdays and Sundays.

According to Mark Ippolito, the director of operations at the Comedy Club, the club has recently become an "A" club, which means it is able to book nationwide acts and is recognized by top agencies. To be considered an "A" club, the venue must have at least 200 seats, and the Comedy Club has just that.

Recently the club has booked nationally known comics such as Richard Lewis, Tom Arnold, and Louie Anderson. However, Ippolito doesn't forget about the local talent. "I'm not just doing the club for the big guys, I'm actually incorporating some of Rochester's talent as well," he says. He does this by hiring locals to emcee the shows and open up for the larger acts, including Pamela Werts, Rick Matthews, and Anna Phillips.

Another recent addition to the Rochester comedy scene is production and promotion company 3 Guys Walk Into A Bar, which is made up of Paulino, Jimmy LeChase, and Bryan Ball. 3 Guys, which has been active since this spring, hosts shows at the Alexander Street Boulder on the last Friday of every month as a way to give a select few up-and-coming comics a chance to perform.

"It gives them the opportunity to showcase and open up for some comics that we bring in," Paulino said about his 3 Guys shows. Paulino adds that the group tries to keep these shows as local as possible, since the local clubs frequently booking national touring acts.

Paulino knows what it's like to take the stage in Rochester, having done his first open mic at the now-closed Comix Café back in 2003. Though he took a break from comedy for several years, he's back in the game now, and has a long list of credits to his name.

"I've gotten to work with guys that I never in a million years thought I would work with," he says. That includes performing with movie and TV star Alec Baldwin at a Wegmans-sponsored charity event earlier this year.

However, Paulino has also had his share of "hell gigs," as he calls them, including a performance in a small church on a 100 degree day. "By the time I got to the stage there were two people left in the room," Paulino says. "When you get in a situation like that you kind of just have to close your eyes and pretend you're at Carnegie Hall."

Different scenes, different styles

Bryan Ball is another of the 3 Guys founders. He hosts the Sunday night open mics at the Alexander Street Boulder, which are free to enter and attend. He says that the audience that attends stand-up shows in Rochester differs a lot between the open-mic and club shows, and tends not to overlap. The open-mic crowd tends to be young, with lots of college students, and is into more "alternative," story-oriented comedy. Think Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt. The club scene tends to draw a slightly older crowd that has more money to spend on bigger acts, which can run up to $50 per seat, and favor more mainstream comics.

"The younger hipster crowd likes to just see somebody a little quirky," Ball says.

At a recent 3 Guys show, the featured comedian, 21-year-old Colin Burgess, was an example of that offbeat style. He held a guitar for the entire act, but when it finally came time to play a song, he pulled out a ukulele, sat it atop his guitar, and played that instrument instead, never using the large guitar strapped around him. To finish up his act, he walked over to his iPod and said, "I believe this song makes even the most mundane activities considerably more dramatic." The familiar tune of "O Fortuna," heard in many movie trailers, came on as Burgess proceeded to peel and eat a banana in slow motion. The crowd of about 25 people, which Burgess pointed out included his parents, appeared to enjoy his slightly awkward style.

The majority of local comedians are in their 20s, Paulino says. Comics that perform at Boulder tend to be younger, while those who perform at the clubs are usually at least in their mid-30s. However, there are exceptions to this average.

"We have a 14-year-old kid that shows up every Sunday" to the Boulder open mic, Paulino says. "That kid cracks me up."

The scene has a mix of races, but the field, both locally and nationally, is overwhelmingly male. However, there are still several prominent female comics in Western New York, including Carol Roberts, who runs the open mic night at Writers & Books.

Ball has been performing comedy for two and a half years and describes his comedy style simply as "smart and wry." He is also a traveling writer. When he's on the road, he tries to perform in other cities, and has made it to the stage in Los Angeles, New York City, and Orlando. "I don't like to go more than a few days without getting on stage," he says.

Traveling also makes him appreciate more about the Rochester comedy scene. "If I go hit an open mic in New York or LA, I always walk away thinking, 'Wow, we have pretty good comics in Rochester,'" Ball says.

One city, two comedy contests

As previously mentioned, the Rochester stand-up scene has become large enough to host two comedy competitions this year, and both have been well attended by comedians and audience members. The final round of one contest drew an audience of nearly 200.

The first, which ran from August through October, was the 2011 Funniest Person in Rochester Contest, hosted by Chet Wild at the Comedy Club. Wild is the regular emcee at the Comedy Club, and frequently hosts Chet Wild's Comedy Showcase at the venue. A total of 96 comics entered the contest this year, but not all were from Rochester. The contest was open to people from all over Western New York. Of the final eight, half were from Rochester.

The second contest -- Laughin' Cup, hosted by the 3 Guys group at Lovin' Cup in Park Point - is still ongoing. This is the contest's second year, and Paulino says that the organizers limited it to 36 contestants to keep it down to one month of shows. The contest has had three rounds so far, with the final round scheduled to take place Monday, December 5, starting at 8 p.m. at the Lovin' Cup. (Check the event listing below for more information.)

Paulino doesn't see having two contests so close to each other as a problem. "I don't look at them as competing against each other. I just think they're two different venues, two different types of events," he says. The major difference about the Laughin' Cup is that it's a juried contest, and that audience vote doesn't factor into the grand-prize winner, as it does with the Funniest Person in Rochester Contest.

Comedic therapy

When you ask local comics what got them into stand-up comedy, you find some recurring themes. "I just need people to boost my ego, I guess," Ball says. "I think that's why everybody does it. They always come up with other reasons like, 'I just like to make people laugh,' but that's not really true." Ball adds that some performers use comedy as a way to work out their own issues. "It helps them to talk about it on stage in front of people and make a joke about [their problems]," Ball says.

Wild considers himself one of these comics, and gives a reason as to why it might be common within the profession. "A lot of comics you talk to may not have a lot of money or even health insurance," Wild says. "It's a cheaper form of therapy."

Ball adds that all comics have a little something wrong with them. "If you're 100 percent right in the head you ain't doing this," he says. "All of us have something a little screwy or we wouldn't be standing up in front of six people telling jokes at midnight on a Saturday."

For him, comedy can be the most empowering or humbling thing ever. "Some nights you have 200 people and they love every word you say. And sometimes you've got six that wandered in there by accident," Ball says.

Most of the stand-up comics you'll see performing in Rochester work other jobs to support themselves, and stand-up is more of a hobby. However, Rochester is home to several full-time comedians, and several nationally successful comics got their start here as well, including Ralph Tetta and Mike Dambra.

One full-time comedian that calls Rochester home is Jamie Lissow, who has appeared on "The Tonight Show" on NBC and had a half-hour special on Comedy Central, the cable comedy channel. Lissow started his comedy career by doing stand-up locally in 1999. After spending 10 years in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City, he moved back to Rochester three years ago. Now he is a regular host on morning radio program "The Wease Show," which airs weekday mornings on 95.1 The Fox, and performs stand-up at the Comedy Club, as well as for colleges and special events.

"I feel like I'm definitely still involved in the scene," Lissow says.

He still travels to perform, but tries to stay in the Northeast. When he does travel, he says Rochester is a great place to come back to. "I'm very happy with the comedy scene now," he says. "I would much rather be doing comedy here than in New York City or L.A." Lissow says that in the bigger cities it's all about comedy as a career, while in Rochester it's more about life, with comedy as a part of that.

Lissow likes many things about being in the comedy business, including its unexpected opportunities. "Comedy is a catalyst for so many other things," he says. His example is that he started off just doing comedy, but is now involved in radio without having had any training in the broadcast industry. He says you see a lot of people start in comedy and then go into acting or a related business.

Lissow has also done some writing for television and screen, but says he prefers the immediacy of stand-up. "Comedy's beautiful because you get such immediate response to what you create," he says.

Getting a laugh

If you want to get involved in the Rochester stand-up scene, as an audience member or performer, there are plenty of opportunities. To have a few laughs with friends from the comfort of your chair, check out the event listings in the sidebar. If you're interested in getting up on stage, or even if you just want to be known as the funny guy at work, consider taking one of the local comedy classes.

Writers & Books on University Avenue offers a stand-up comedy workshop; its next three-week session begins in early January. The workshop is taught by former stand-up comedian Carol Roberts, who has performed with comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres and Robin Williams. No experience is required.

Comedian Ralph Tetta also teaches a comedy workshop at the Comedy Club. He has 24 years of experience, and performed in 37 states and Canada just last year. Typically his classes focus on putting an act together, writing jokes, and building confidence by doing dry runs. He also helps students with the business side of things. Tetta says that if you've ever told a joke or story, or made a witty response, you're experienced enough to take his course. (The course is offered twice a year, in the fall and late spring. More information can be found at thecomedyclub.us.)

Wild has some words of advice for up-and-coming comics. "If comedy is something you've thought about trying, just do it," he says. "If you're worried about being ill prepared, buy a beginner's stand-up book or take a comedy class to help guide you."

Rochester comedy events

3 Guys Walk Into A Bar

Shows on last Friday of the month (no show in December), 8 p.m.

Boulder Coffee, 100 Alexander St.

$5, facebook.com/3GuysWalkIntoABar

Chet Wild's Comedy Showcase

Monthly; next edition Thursday, December 22, 9:30 p.m.

10 comics plus a professional headliner

The Comedy Club, 2235 Empire Blvd., Webster

$5, thecomedyclub.us

The Comedy Club

Wekly shows Thursdays 7:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 7:30 & 10 p.m., featuring nationally touring stand-up comedians

2235 Empire Blvd., Webster

Regular shows: $9-$12, special shows $15-$50, thecomedyclub.us

Last Laff Bar & Grill

Weekly shows Fridays and Saturdays, 8 & 10 p.m., featuring nationally touring stand-up comedians.

4768 Lake Ave., Charlotte

Shows usually $10, lastlaff.net

Laughin' Cup Comedy Contest

Final round takes place Monday, December 5, 8 p.m.

Lovin' Cup, 300 Park Point Drive

Free, lovincup.com

Open Mic Comedy

Sundays 8:30 p.m. (7:45 p.m. sign-up)

Boulder Coffee Co., 100 Alexander St.

Free, bouldercoffeeco.com

Open Mic Comedy

Wednesdays, 8 p.m. (7:15 p.m. sign-up)

Boulder Coffee Co., 739 Park Ave.

Free, bouldercoffeeco.com

Open Mic Comedy

First Wednesday of the month, 7-9 p.m.

Writers & Books, 740 University Ave.

Free to comics, $3 suggested donation. Material must be clean. wab.org

Open Mic Comedy

First Tuesday of the Month, 8:30 p.m.

58 Main Restaurant, 58 Main St., Brockport

Free, 58main.com

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