On the laugh track

Doug Benson

It took a few years, but eventually their reputation as proponents and practitioners of comedy made enough people laugh and take notice that a reputation began to form and spread.

Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares might be in charge of a relatively small venue in a relatively small city with a relatively small comedy community, but since when did that stop them?

They do what they do because, well, what else are they going to do?

Tavares and Sullivan are part of the The Have Nots!, which is the anchor comedy troupe at Theatre 99 and the magnet that has drawn many amateur and accomplished improvisers to the little stage above The Bicycle Shoppe on Meeting Street.

They organize a lot of sketch and improv comedy and cultivate a group of participants and an audience whose members occasionally cross the invisible boundary separating real life from the stage.

Now, nearly 20 years since they started their improv group and 14 years after they opened Theatre 99, Sullivan and Tavares are presenting the 12th annual Charleston Comedy Festival, which runs Jan. 14-17 and includes performances by the Reformed Whores, Airwolf, North Coast, Squirm and Germ and others - 24 shows in all.

Most of it is improv and sketch comedy, not stand-up, and most of it will be at Theatre 99, not the Sottile. Most of it, hopefully, will be funny.

But that's a pretty safe bet. If one joke fails there is always another one that'll make you smile, or chuckle, or guffaw, Sullivan and Tavares said.

The standards are high, insofar as many of the comedians at Theatre 99 are experienced and not easily intimidated. But this isn't Chicago or New York City, Tavares and Sullivan said. Lorne Michaels is not coming to Charleston to scout talent for "Saturday Night Live." Probably not.

So the comedians only have a lot to prove to one another and to eager audiences.

In Chicago and Los Angeles, every routine is a possible audition. In Charleston, the routines are a different sort of routine: They terminate here. This relieves some of the pressure, Tavares and Sullivan said.

The festival will feature three headliners: Hannibal Buress, Doug Benson and John Mulaney.

Buress, a Chicago native, is one of those comics who does a bit of everything: stand-up, writing, TV guest appearances, sitcoms and movies.

Benson, too, is among the emerging generation of successful comics who work in multiple media.

Aside from TV and film, Benson produces two weekly podcasts, "Doug Loves Movies" and "Getting Doug with High."

Mulaney is creator-writer-star of "Mulaney" on Fox, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer (who helped Bill Hader develop the character Stefon) and a practiced stand-up comedian.

In a telephone interview, Buress said he got into stand-up comedy the usual way: by giving it a try one open-mike night while he was in college. "I heard a friend performing, watched a few people, decided to try it the next time," he said. "It seemed like something I could do."

Those early attempts can be intimidating; ask anyone who's tried it.

But Buress said those tentative first steps don't have to be traumatic.

"Early on, if you get some chuckles, it can feel all right," he said. "As long as you're not getting booed off stage ... it can feel pretty good."

He wasn't booed off stage. He honed his skills. He worked hard. He seized opportunities. He collaborated with lots of people.

Now he's in the middle of the holiday break in the shooting schedule for the movie "Daddy's Home" starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg and Linda Cardellini. Buress plays the handyman who thinks Ferrell's character is racist.

The shoot in New Orleans is going well, he said. Director Sean Anders often asks for multiple takes, encouraging the actors to cut loose a little.

In early 2012, Buress came to Charleston for the first time, joining fellow comedian Aziz Ansari (a South Carolina native) for a few local shows.

On his birthday, Feb. 4, he was a passenger in the back seat of a car that got hit. Buress woke up in a local hospital. It wasn't funny.

But the accident and resulting scar wasn't enough to keep him away.

Charleston, he said, is not often on the radar of many comedians because it lacks a 200- to 300-seat comedy club.

It has Theatre 99, which specializes in theater, and it's got the Sottile and the Charleston Music Hall, which seat 785 and 918 respectively.

But it doesn't have that critical in-between venue where comics can develop their act and cultivate a following, he said.

"People know Charleston as fun town with good culture, but for it to be a touring destination, you have to have that comedy club," Buress said.

On Oct. 14, Buress' routine at the Trocadero comedy club in Philadelphia captured headlines after he called out Bill Cosby for being imperious and disingenuous when criticizing young blacks for the way they dress.

"Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches," Buress said, referring to recently publicized allegations of sexual assault leveled at the elder comedian.

Some years ago, Sullivan and Tavares took notice of the growing (if modest) interest among certain fearless people to try their hand at improv comedy, and the pair decided to teach classes. In so doing, they developed an ever-morphing team of regulars.

And that helped get the word out. Soon, comics from other cities were calling to see if they could join in, or perhaps fill an open night during a tour by doing a stand-up routine at Theatre 99.

Eventually, the comics who came calling included some big names - Scott Adsit, for example, the Second City veteran and "30 Rock" actor; or Nick Thune, who's made several appearances in various movies and TV shows; or Aziz Ansari, the comedian best known for his role as Tom Haverford in the TV show "Parks and Recreation."

Tavares and Sullivan were doing comedy for a living. They attributed this to luck, hard work and relationship building.

And to Charleston. ("Charleston is an easy sell," Tavares said). Add to those growing financial support and a dedicated audience.

Their venue, Theatre 99, was becoming an important regional anchor, a place that could hold its own and then some.

It has achieved this status thanks not only to the regular goofiness, but to the organized mayhem that has been concentrated into two weeks during the Piccolo Fringe Festival and into four days or so during the Charleston Comedy Festival.

Sullivan and Tavares are curators of a sort, begging less and less, choosing more.

"It's fun," Tavares said. "We got to build the theater we dreamed (about). It's very, very satisfying to be able to network and see each other's work."

The festival will end with a variety show finale and improv jam on the stage of Theatre 99 and dozens of comics will populate its tiny stage.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ aparkerwriter.