Laugh Riot

On the road with the club warriors and alt-comics of Seattle’s stand-up Olympics.

Illustrations by Casey Burns

Photography by Heather Christianson

Like piano-keyboard ties, acid-wash jeans worn high with white Reeboks, and a pre-Seinfeld Seinfeld with a full head of hair, stand-up comedy seems a relic of the Reagan years. Something that boomed with Robin Williams, then also suffered a cocaine comedown, as cable TV and strip-mall comedy clubs gorged and exhausted performers and fans alike.

That was my attitude, anyway, as I drove south to Puyallup on a recent evening for the opening round of the Seattle International Comedy Competition. (Translation: "International" means Canada.) It's my first night in what will become a three-week odyssey of almost nightly stand-up. Two flights of 16 comics are in the race, starting with five-minute sets all around the state—Capitol Hill to Kent, Pioneer Square to Puyallup, Ellensburg to Walla Walla. Five of them will make the finals, which begin this week in and around Seattle. The winner bags $5,000, with another $10,000 split among the remaining contestants.

The name Puyallup alone invites a rim shot and fart joke, and I'm bracing myself for the formula: "You know, the weird thing about dating Puyallup women . . . " Then perhaps a bit of stage pantomime that could involve having sex on the hood of a '78 Camaro. Then the punch line with the tired '80s embellishment: "On crack!"

Established in 1980, the year before the Comedy Underground took residence in the basement of a Pioneer Square sports bar, the contest's past local winners have included Ross Shafer (who hosted KING 5's long-running Almost Live in the '80s and also had a talk show on Fox), Peggy Platt (still working locally), and Bill Radke (longtime KUOW voice and now co-host of NPR's Weekend America). The most revered champion is Mitch Hedberg (1997), who moved here during the '90s, helped established the "alt-comedy" genre, and made it to Letterman and other big-time gigs before his drug-related death last year. Perhaps the most successful competitor is Patton Oswalt, who now plays a sidekick on The King of Queens and also shows up on Reno 911! Some consolation to the losers: He didn't even reach the finals back in 1995.

The Underground, where the final face-off will take place Sunday, Nov. 26, and Giggles in the U District are the sole survivors of Seattle's '80s comedy boom. Back then, says Ron Reid, who co-runs the competition and manages the Underground, "There were five [clubs] in Seattle. People went nuts. It was the prime going-out years of the baby boom. It was a demographic thing."

But those days are over. "The bottom fell out in '90 or '91," Reid says. "There's not a lot of money. People are doing it for the love. There's a certain amount of purity. It isn't very commercial on a club level."

OUTSIDE THE LIBERTY Theater in Puyallup, a nicely refurbished, 84-year-old movie hall used most often these days for wedding receptions, a half-dozen comics smoke nervously. Not only is this Puyallup, but Puyallup on a Wednesday night, and the two-hour show begins at 8. The place is half-full, with a polite, thoroughly sober crowd who look like they'll be driving minivans home to the kids and baby-sitter. It's pre-election season, and all the yard signs I've seen have been solidly pro- McGavick and supporting property-rights measure I-933. As the performers puff away, you can imagine each of them shuffling their mental 3-by-5 note cards: Bush jokes, out. Iraq war jokes, out. Ethnic humor, out. Oops—out of note cards.

"A lot of these guys don't have a deep bench," says Jim Heneghen, emcee for the first week and a runner-up last year.

"I don't consider it a fine art. Stand-up is respected between rodeo clown and stripper"Geoff Brousseau

Tonight's routines present a rather numbing procession of dick jokes and riffs on white guys who can't dance, no-good exes, and errant kids. The guy who gets the biggest laughs does a well-rehearsed routine about shagging a woman who moans through one of those throat-cancer voice boxes. No surprise, he wins the evening. (The judges for the contest are mostly local media types. For two nights, judging will be done by industry scouts from Comedy Central, CBS Paramount, and the E! network.)

The competing comics are about evenly split between practiced road performers from L.A. and elsewhere, with slick headshots and confident stage demeanors, and a more DIY, ragged Northwest crew, including a fiftysomething black woman from Tacoma with artificial hips who jokes about her falling breasts and stomach-stapling surgery. It's not hard to tell the two regional factions apart.

Among the locals, the most sitcom-ready is Geoff Brousseau, a lumpy, put-upon regular fella straight outta Lake Forest Park. His is an immediately recognizable, relatable TV persona, an exasperated chronicler of the white guy's burden— living in a complex called Camelot Park ("You ever notice the shittier the apartment, the fancier the name?"), a divorced father with another kid on the way ("I'm gonna name her Dreamkiller").

"My act is absolutely 100 percent autobiographical," Brousseau tells me. "I don't sit down with a newspaper and come up with material." He takes a meat-and-potatoes view of comedy. "I don't consider it a fine art. Stand-up is respected between rodeo clown and stripper. I don't really write to be 'edgy.' I try to be honest. I want to completely hold nothing back." The everydude character he crafts, the voice he says he's trying to hone, "is sort of a cynic . . . an intelligent dummy." The Puyallup crowd likes him, and the judges score him among the top five that evening.

Emmett Montgomery: Conspicuous silence

Heather Christianson

Not so with my favorite among the locals. Emmett Montgomery deliberately squanders the first 10 seconds of his set with conspicuous silence. His jokes, told without stage patter or segues, use the barbiturate pacing he developed doing spoken-word and poetry in Orem, Utah. It's a Steven Wright monotone, only without the calculated diffidence—the challenge being thrown at Carson-era comics and viewers.

"These are poems with punch lines," Montgomery tells me later over drinks, "and every word counts." Thus goes one bit: "When I was a little kid, everyone my age wanted to grow up and be a fireman or an astronaut. I never wanted to be a fireman, I just wanted to be fire. Or the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space."

With floppy blond hair, fairly constant deadpan, and vintage cardigan sweater, Montgomery eschews the manic, loose-shirttail style the other comics use to pack maximum gags into their five-minute sets. "I have a rhythm, I hold my pauses," he explains. Speaking onstage as the angry clown who lives beneath a child's bed, he asks, "Why do you make your mother cry?" Then, pause, he shifts from angry clown to hungry clown: "To me, a child's tears taste like delicious gravy."

His work is met with polite Puyallup bewilderment, and the judges aren't much kinder. "I think I failed well," he tells me. "I had some validation. I stuck to my guns." (Indeed, he says he subsequently got a feeler from CBS Paramount on his MySpace page. Almost all comedians use the Web to self-market and reach fans, often citing the example of "it" comic Dane Cook.)

Though he remembers listening to his older brothers' Steve Martin comedy albums as a kid, Montgomery says that the greater influence was Edward Gorey's animated intro to the PBS Mystery series. He sees himself in the tradition of one-panel cartoonists like Gahan Wilson, B. Kliban, and Gary Larson. "It's a picture," he says of a successful joke, one drawn with words and using the stage as paper.

Montgomery and a handful of other alt-comedy performers—who call themselves the People's Republic of Komedy—established a series this summer at the Capitol Hill Arts Center called the Laff Hole. It's done well enough that they just signed a six-month agreement for weekly Wednesday night shows beginning Dec. 6.

"We're trying to embrace the audience that was jaded in the '90s," says Scott Moran, a member of the People's Republic. "It's mainly people who would never go to a comedy club." He advocates a stage for performers "with no desire to travel and do Yakima."

Well, yeah, but if your jokes don't translate in Yakima, how will you fare in Los Angeles, where comics go to earn a living? As one of the L.A. road dogs says to me: "If your hip joke can kill in Boise, Idaho, and in Seattle, too, then you've got a great joke." Or at least a salable joke.

The models these comics tend to cite are Louis CK, Bill Hicks, Hedberg, Oswalt, and Marc Maron—not exactly road dogs looking for casino and cruise-ship bookings, but not trying to reinvent the form, either.

Peter Greyy: "Still insular"

Heather Christianson

"It's still a little insular," says comic Peter Greyy of the alt scene. (He should know, having previously organized the popular Mirabeau Room comedy nights, which ended this September.) "It's still a little self-congratulatory."

This was evident on a recent evening when I saw visiting comic Rory Scovel first deliver a tight, winning set in the quarterfinals at the Underground, then go into more rambling, free-form mode later at the Laff Hole, where the stage is a foot-high plywood riser and there were maybe 30 people late on a Tuesday. Scovel does everything possible to avoid telling a direct joke—talking to the amplifiers, unplugging his mike, dragging his mike stand around, wandering on and off stage, and so forth. It's an anti–comedy act, anti–club humor, the funny very pointedly bracketed in quotation marks. What saves it, barely, from being tedious and meta is Scovel's earned reservoir of good will, the attractive stage presence that, frankly, most alties lack.

"There's a comedy audience here, and they just don't know it," Montgomery says of Seattle theatergoers. "They think 'comedy,' and they think, 'Git-R-done.'" (That's the catchphrase of Larry the Cable Guy of Blue Comedy Collar tour fame, probably the top-grossing comedian in America.) "They can see [comedy] most nights of the week. It would be nice to have the comics not outnumber the audience. We're trying to foster a comedy scene . . . a progressive comedy scene; there's no reason those two genres can't mix together."

YET COMICS inevitablytalk about leaving Seattle. Says Montgomery, "I know I can't be here forever. One day, I'm gonna have to go to New York or L.A. to make a living. Or not."

"It's a wonderful town for a hobbyist comic," says Doug Gale, who often performs at the Underground's politically oriented Non-Profit Comedy nights (every Tuesday). Gale says he's witnessed many nights of comedians performing for other comedians. "There's a lot of indiscriminate support for one another. The wonderful, friendly comedy scene can certainly hurt that scene." Meaning the cutthroat competitive atmosphere of New York and L.A. helps sharpen one's act.

Gale notes what I've observed: The L.A. comics have stage skills, while Seattle performers, no matter how promising, tend to mumble at their Keds. "They don't actually have any concept of what they're doing as performance," he says.

No one I talk to has much interest in theater, or in stepping up their acts into monologues, à la Mike Daisey or Lauren Weedman. But I've seen the potential: Though he didn't make the semis, Tony Daniel has a good routine about being the only black person in Redmond. Montgomery could mine the subject of growing up the oddball in his large Utah family, surrounded by Mormons and wanting to be a librarian. Brousseau has the terrors and indignities of fatherhood.

Casey Burns

Meanwhile, as stand-up comedy is busy (or isn't) reinventing itself, here come the YouTubers, with no use for stage performance at all. Outside the Underground on a smoking break one night, there's nervous talk of Joe Bereta and Luke Barats, two college kids fresh out of Gonzaga, who just signed an NBC pilot deal based on their YouTube videos. They've never performed in Seattle, and now they don't need to.

Or, if they do, they're likely to play the Paramount or the Moore, as today's top-tier comics do now, while homegrown talent continues to toil away at Seattle's two comedy-dedicated venues. "Giggles used to be the A-list club," says Gale, but today there's no place where locals can open for national acts.

Though there have been periodic rumors through the years about franchises of Caroline's or the Improv coming to Seattle, the local comedy scene seems destined to grow strictly from its roots, supported by patrons like Reid and practitioners like the Laff Hole gang.

After my comedy marathon, it's clear that Seattle has a burgeoning base of new talent, more nights and venues than any time since the dread '80s, and yet a curious cultural indifference to how the scene has evolved—as if it's only for drunken Seahawks fans who accidentally fall down the Underground's basement stairs while looking for Swannies.

For Doug Gale, it all depends on those filling (or not) the seats: "It's a matter of the audience. It has to come from the demand side." Only then, perhaps, will local comedy lift itself out of the cellar.

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