They each had five minutes or so. Some were amateurs testing their mettle, others came with years of experience. All were risk-takers.
Rossi Brown, a little unsure of himself, cracked a couple of quick jokes: "Why do you never see teddy bears eat? Because they're stuffed. What happened to the girl who shoplifted a calendar? She got 12 months."
A few chuckles.
Nathan Durfee told some hashtag jokes. Neal Bansil wondered why schools insist on teaching students to play the recorder.
"Of the billions of kids who've learned the recorder, how come not one of them has taken it to the next level?"
Veteran Stan Shelby tried out some new one-liners.
"If you live in a trailer, you can't have a garage sale."
It was a quiet night at Sparians in Mount Pleasant. A few patrons tossed their bowling balls down the blue-lit lanes while inside the bar, David Appleton hosted the weekly open mic session, introducing local comics and offering a few transitional wisecracks.
Most of the 15 or so people scattered at the tables were comics, there to get five minutes on the little stage and support colleagues and friends.
Sparians hosts one of several open mic nights around town, and it's an indicator of comedy's current status, offering fans reason to be hopeful - cautiously hopeful.
Developing a comedy scene in Charleston has been tough going. It has taken a couple of decades, but half of that scene, the improv part, is flourishing thanks to The Have Nots! at Theatre 99. The other half, stand-up, still is not quite rooted, not quite drawing the fans required to fuel the fun and ensure its lasting presence in the Holy City.
That assessment, shared by many comics, describes the challenge, not any sort of defeat. In fact, the nearly nightly improv at Theatre 99 is supplemented by at least five regular open mic nights in the area.
What's more, stand-up can be found occasionally at the Charleston Music Hall, which started a series last year that features both local and touring comics. Theatre 99, too, hosts some stand-up, though its operators insist repeatedly that that's the exception to the rule. The rule at Theatre 99 is: improv or death (or sometimes both).
"We're fighting the good fight of improv," co-founder Greg Tavares said. "Our bread and butter is improv. The vast majority of what we do is improv. ... This is run like a theater company; this is not a comedy club."
The open mic scenario, though, is essential for comics who want a relatively low-pressure environment in which to try out new material or hone their craft, according to local comic Dave Appleton and others. It's also a good way to support and network with other comics, who often make up the majority of the audience.
Stand-up vs. improv
It could be said that the start of comedy in Charleston coincided with the beginning of the city's renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That's when Tony Kemp started developing talent in town. For the past few years, he has operated an open mic night at Firewater Grille in Summerville. Kemp has worked with comedians Shaun Jones, Shawn Cornelius, Rollin Jay Moore, Brian T. Shirley and Dave "Ugly" Evans, to name a few.
In 1995, Tavares and Brandy Sullivan started doing improv with a couple of friends. It was a "neo-vaudvillian model," and inexpensive, Sullivan said.
"We are constantly introducing the form to people," she said.
Tavares estimated that about half of their audience is new to the experience.
Improv, improvisational skit comedy, often features specific characters, dialogue and other forms of interaction. It's really about storytelling and acting and ensemble work, Sullivan and Tavares said. It is utterly unlike stand-up, which is raw and exposed and lives or dies depending on the comic's ability to connect with the audience. Improv provides escape hatches, shortcuts, digressions; it benefits from the quick-wittedness of all involved in the group on stage.
"It's (really) a form of acting," Tavares said.
"It starts with nothing," perhaps only a word or phrase from the audience, Sullivan said. "You figure it out one line at a time."
When it works, it's exhilarating. Sullivan said her best moments are when she is thoroughly connected to her character and to her partners. Tavares said he loves those moments when he sheds his identity and fully assumes that of the character he's playing.
"That's the juice that keeps you coming back," Sullivan said.
Of course, it doesn't always work very well.
If you're only satisfied when you hit great golf swings, you're going to spend a lot of time being unhappy, Tavares said.
"You play, you win; you play, you lose - you play."
A few weeks ago, Theatre 99 hosted its long-form improv tournament. Six teams had eight minutes to show their stuff. The audience voted for its favorites.
The 130-seat venue was nearly full, and spectators were in a good mood. Tavares MC'd from the stage while Sullivan's husband, the quick-witted Sean Sullivan, bantered with Tavares from the booth at the back of the room.
The skits were funny, sometimes very funny, running in all sorts of unexpected directions. The actors all adhered to certain improv techniques, like the shoulder tap to signal a character swap, and quick back-and-forth exchanges that kept the energy high.
The night's winner was the group Parking Boot Society, starring Ali Silvester, Andy Livengood and Mark Szlachetka; 7 Lady 7, featuring Kristen May, Camille Lowman and Brandy Sullivan, placed second.
Since its founding, The Have Nots! company has grown (it has about 45 active members now) and Theatre 99 has expanded its offerings to include daytime classes, comedy workshops, internships and more. Amateurs sometimes become professionals - or at least part of the regular crew.
Tavares said the number of comedy clubs throughout the country has declined even as small theaters have filled in the gaps.
Each year, Charleston sees a miniature exodus of comics who train and work here for a while only to relocate to Chicago or Los Angeles or New York City. Big-name comics are beginning to hear about Charleston, but the city's still not on the regular tour circuit.
Hub and spokes
One comic who helped get things going here then moved away is Dusty Slay. Slay came to Charleston in 2003 and, right away, began to dabble in comedy, starting an open mic night at the Upper Deck Tavern, he said. "2008 was when we really started pushing things."
Initially, the people involved had at least a little experience, but eventually, the scene started to attract more first-timers, Slay said.
"This is Chucktown," originally a sketch comedy revue that evolved into a stand-up show, was hosted by Theatre 99. Lately, Charles Carmody, manager of the Music Hall, has brought to town a few comics with national reputations, such as Aziz Ansari and Mike Birbiglia, Slay said.
The Hall can be treacherous, though. It seats 900, so if a show doesn't sell well, the venue can feel pretty empty, Slay and other comics noted.
The city is a great place for improvisers at Theatre 99 and for emerging stand-up comics, Slay said.
"In Charleston, if you make it, there are tons of opportunities to perform," he said. "But as far as getting real work, you've got to leave." By "real work," Slay means enough paying gigs to be able to call comedy a career in and of itself.
Earlier this year, Slay moved to Nashville, which is both a destination and pass-through city, better positioned on the comedy circuit, which makes it easier to find local work and to tour, he said. It's at a geographical crossroads, not far from St. Louis, Memphis, Chattanooga, Louisville, even Charlotte and Atlanta - all cities that have comedy clubs.
Recently, three of Slay's friends moved to New York City, three more left for Chicago and another two relocated to Los Angeles, he said. It's possible that some of them will circle back to Charleston.
Camille Lowman did.
Lowman, a Spanish teacher by day at a local charter school, is a graduate of the College of Charleston and a South Carolina native. She spent the last nine years in Chicago and New York, acting and making jokes. She's a regular at Theatre 99.
She got hooked on improv after college. "I've always loved being at the center of attention, I guess," Lowman said.
She worked at a couple of law firms just long enough to know she never wanted to do that again. Around 2002, she took a comedy class, practiced with a bunch of other people who signed up at the same time, then moved to Chicago to get more training - at Second City and iO (formerly ImprovOlympic).
She was in Chicago for four years, until she decided she wanted training in dramatic acting, too. So Lowman moved to New York City.
"I wanted to see if I could carry a show," she said. Five years later, after some success and much hand-wringing, she decided to come back home.
"My priorities had shifted," she said. "Doing shows at 11 o'clock at night in Long Island City no longer excited me. I really wanted to have my own apartment and not wait tables and live with four other people."
She wanted to travel, to teach and speak Spanish. And she knew there was a stage available to her in Charleston, supportive friends and a welcoming audience.
"I perform every weekend," she said. "I'm performing more now than I was in New York."
Today, in addition to The Have Nots!'s improv at Theatre 99, Charleston has two annual comedy festivals, one in January and one in May/June called Piccolo Fringe; Darryl and Sherry Wade's Black Fedora Comedy Mystery Theatre, a stand-up series at the Music Hall; and those open mic nights at Sparians bowling alley bar in Mount Pleasant (Mondays), Joe Pasta downtown (Tuesdays), King Dusko downtown (Wednesdays) and Firewater Grille in Summerville (weekends). Another open mic night, at Tin Roof in West Ashley, is offered on the first Sunday of each month.
The open mic nights are both a blessing and a curse, comics such as Stan Shelby and Dave Ugly said. They certainly help keep things going, and provide plenty of opportunity for up-and-coming comics, but they also keep the stand-up comedy scene a little too dispersed.
What's needed now, many said, is a proper comedy club, a venue not so large that it forfeits intimacy, but not so small that patrons feel cramped, a venue that's got a good sound system and a clear comedy focus (along with food and beverages).
David Appleton, the comedian who hosts the open mic night at Sparians, said the developing scene has provided ample opportunity to try things out. He started the "Stand Up Get Down Comedy Show" some years back. He's played a variety of small rooms, including The 827 in West Ashley, Threshold Theatre downtown and Light bar at 213 East Bay St., which was gutted by fire last year.
"Sometimes God sends a sign, sometimes he sends a fire truck," Appleton said.
It's been difficult to monetize all this stand-up. It's not centralized, he said. Charleston hasn't yet achieved destination status. "People come and go."
"Stand-up needs a home in Charleston," Appleton said, while noting that progress is being made.
"People are hearing about Charleston. We're bringing people here - and good folks."
It might only take a little more patience and a gentle push for Charleston to become not just one of the South's most elegant destinations, but one of its funniest.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
Michael Clayton works to connect with the audience during open mic night upstairs at Joe Pasta on King Street Tuesday night.×
Emcee Stan Shelby introduces a succession of comics during open mic night upstairs at Joe Pasta on King Street.×
Jody Carter takes a turn onstage during open mic night for budding comedians upstairs at Joe Pasta on King Street.×