Condensation forms on tables in the Iowa City Yacht Club’s basement as the heavy late-summer air clashes with the building’s rapidly aging air conditioner. The machine kicks on periodically, requiring the volume of conversation to increase by at least a quarter of a shout.
It’s three minutes till 9 on a Monday night, and a combination of comedians and comedy fans have gathered in clusters around the room. Those sitting near the green- and red-lit stage chat and sip drinks, while others in the back flip through leather-bound notebooks or scroll through the notes app on their phone. About 20 people have signed up to perform, and the open mic’s host, Spencer Loucks, handles the introductions (as well as lighting and emcee duties).
Mid-September must be break-up season — nearly a third of the stand-ups offer heartbreak-tinged takes on movies, their jobs or their own personalities. The absurdity of subjecting oneself to an open mic is another frequent topic; self-awareness is the name of the game. Some have their five-minute sets meticulously planned, clearly navigating a winding maze of detailed gags and callbacks. Others riff on a rough outline, delivering improvised jokes half into the microphone, half to the wall.
It’s a hodgepodge of different creative styles and paces, the success of each measured by the audience’s laughter and applause — an unreliable source, as the crowd numbers fluctuate between roughly two and three dozen throughout the night. As fickle as audiences can be, the basement crowd represents a growing scene trending towards inclusivity.
“Iowa comedy has a bunch of very good performers: people who take being funny on stage very seriously and put a lot of effort into it,” said Mike Lucas, host of Yacht Club’s Let’s Do This! Comedy Showcase. “Iowa City is an artistic town with lots of creative people … There are always new people coming to town every year, so the scene is always reinventing itself.”
Lucas said he honed his craft at open mics at the Piano Lounge in Iowa City and Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids, though he didn’t take the stage right away. “It took me about six months before I even worked up the nerve to do it,” he said.
But comedic tastes in the area have changed in recent years, Lucas said, which is likely serving to make shows more welcoming.
“I’ve seen the audiences less interested in gross-out comedy,” he said. “Rude, malicious stuff just really isn’t accepted much anymore, which is cool with me.”
University of Iowa students are also coming out more frequently to perform and spectate. One of these students is Clara Reynen, a UI senior from South Dakota who’s writing her honors thesis on stand-up comedy and hitting as many stages as she can.
“My favorite joke [of mine] right now is bemoaning my attraction to guys who are not great or kind guys,” Reynen said, reciting the gag: “‘I’ve conditioned myself to like awful men. I’m like the Pavlov’s dog of dating. When I hear a man call his mom a bitch, my ears perk up. When I see a man who looks like he’s going to forget my birthday, my pupils dilate. And when my friends tell me not to trust someone because he’s cheated on his last six girlfriends, I just start drooling.’”
Reynen said she’s most influenced by Cameron Esposito, Steve Martin and Iowa City playwright and comedian Megan Gogerty. (“I got my hair cut so you can part it on either side,” goes one of Gogerty’s bits. “It’s called a universal bang, which was my nickname in college.”)
In addition to opening for the likes of Louie Anderson, Esposito, Eddie Pepitone and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom, Gogerty has taught a stand-up comedy practicum at the UI since 2015, which Reynen had taken. The class places “an emphasis less on creating a false comic persona and more on pulling from and articulating personal truth,” according to the course description, and requires students to regularly attend open mics and other local comedy shows.
“I think Iowa City was a great place to start — you can get on stage without too much pressure, and learn the ropes pretty fast,” said Jessica Misra, a former Iowa City comedian now based in Chicago. She opened for Demetri Martin at the Englert Theatre in February, her biggest stage yet. “There’s room to do weirder things and branch out to other types of comedy.”
Similar to the local music scene, many stand-ups in Iowa City are approaching their craft from a DIY mindset, from the IC Secret Stand-Up Show, a semi-regular showcase held in a downtown Iowa City basement, to the alt-comedy collective Green Gravel Comedy, founded in 2014 by some of the area’s foremost stand-ups with the goal of putting on “odd and fantastic events.” (These have included a free Pete Holmes show and a talk with the creators of Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks.)
Outside of stand-up, Iowa City’s improv comedy scene is headed by three troupes, Paperback Rhino, The Great White Narcs and Janice, all mainly comprised of UI students, performing long- and short-form improvised sketches and storylines. Each group has cultivated a distinct style and fan base.
Meggie Gates, a Chicago-based comedian, actor and freelance writer from Cedar Rapids, began their comedy career in Iowa City as a member and eventually captain of the all-female Janice.
“The audience we drew grew more curious over time, and by my senior year when the teams started doing shows together, it brought together these different crowds,” Gates said in an email conversation. “Iowa City in general is such an open place for creation.”
Gates identifies as nonbinary and pansexual, and taps into their identity for laughs: “I’m hesitant to brand myself as pansexual because everyone I’m attracted to is bad,” reads one of Gates’ tweets. (Gates said they’ve tweeted “literally any good joke I’ve ever had.”) Another: “My gender is whichever bathroom is closest.”
“I think comedy is one of the most effective genres for expressing individual ideas, beliefs, opinions and experiences,” said Leela Bassuk, producer of Iowa City’s Floodwater Comedy Festival and captain of the Paperback Rhino improv troupe, in an email to Little Village.
While both the stand-up and improv communities exist in parallel, typically drawing different crowds to isolated events, the two have come together the last three springs for the Floodwater Comedy Festival. Bassuk said the Floodwater lineup is designed to showcase women, people of color, LGBTQ comics and others “often marginalized in comedy.”
“Since Floodwater’s creation and over our three-year run, we have made it a goal to bring performers from all over the country and from our talented local pool to reflect the wide spectrum of perspectives that color our world,” she said.
The university has incorporated comedy into their programming as well; in April, the UI Obermann Center invited stuttering comedian Nina G. to perform as part of their symposium, Misfitting: Disability Broadly Considered. UI graduate student Andrew Tubbs, who has the rare genetic disorder thrombocytopenia-absent radius (TAR), opened for Nina G.
“I realized that as a comedian,” Tubbs told Iowa Now, “I have an immense amount of power to use the disability in a way that is confrontational but also allows individuals space to talk about disability, especially when they feel uncomfortable about it.”
A comedian’s own growth is driven not just by what goes over well with the audience, but also by the responses from other comics, according to Audrey Brock, regular co-host of Hitchhike Open Mic on Thursdays at High Ground Cafe in Iowa City, Little Village humor columnist and host of the 2019 Roast of Iowa City, Oct. 6.
“A lot of what success in the area is about is really about the relationship with the other comedians,” Brock said. “What other comics find funny and what people who come in off the street find funny might be different, and with other comics, you can’t get away with just doing structure exercises on the same type of set with different jokes.”
Back at the Yacht Club, taking a break next to the sputtering air conditioner that could, Spencer Loucks reflected on the ways in which Iowa City might break its comedic mold.
“I think a show with a lot of variety, a sort of ‘comedy plus something’ would do really well, and hold an audience,” he said. “Audiences tend to like the mix of types of entertainment—something to break up the sea of stand-ups. Really, I think sketch comedy, burlesque comedy or something in addition to the current circuit could do really well in Iowa City.”
Brock agreed. “We can be more like ‘friends who hang out,’” she said of local comedians. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it’s made the culture healthier; but to get that broad appeal to new people, both comics and audience members, we might need a little more variety in what we’re doing.”
Floodwater Comedy Festival co-producer and Loucks’ usual Monday night Yacht Club co-host Daniel Frana, originally from Calmar, Iowa, said he stumbled upon open mics as a UI student, and recently celebrated his eight-year “comedy-versary.” When he’s not hosting an event or performing, he’s supporting himself as a bartender at the Deadwood in downtown Iowa City — and wouldn’t have it another way.
“All I want is to be able to continue performing … as often as I can while still bartending at a place I love. So I am living my dream,” Frana said.
Cedar Rapids comedian Trenton Orris has settled into the local scene as well, weaving Iowa references into his material. (“I don’t like the ways that I get reminded that I’m overweight,” he says in one of his choice bits. “I was walking down the street and a lady pulled up to me in her car and said, ‘Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me where the Pizza Ranch is?’ And I thought, ‘Oh no. I’m the guy who obviously knows where the Pizza Ranch is.’”)
Orris, too, has kept his ambitions starkly below the clouds: “I just want to do well enough in comedy that my dad will stop asking me if I talked to his friend about that insurance salesman job.”
Fulfilling the aspirations of many an open-mic attendee, Meggie Gates has managed to make a career in comedy, performing for the We Still Like You comedy showcase in Chicago on Sept. 8, getting a shout-out from The Good Place writer Megan Amram on Twitter and preparing to launch a web series, See You In Hell, with friend Laura Petro. But Gates said it’s important for comedians not to put too much pressure on themselves to “make it.”
“It’s hard not to beat yourself up about everything you are or are not making and I don’t want people to lose themselves to thinking art is a business,” they said. “There’s magic every time we get to create and it’s easier to forget that when you get older and it becomes your career.”
With nearly two hours and a score of comedic routines under their belt, the Yacht Club’s Sept. 9 open mic crowd dwindles a bit. The majority of the remaining comedians retreat to a corner booth to debrief after their sets as audience members return beer bottles and cups of half-melted ice to the bar. The air conditioner again cycles off, but the room is still buzzing.
Where to Catch Local Stand-Up
Comedy Mondays, The Yacht Club, Iowa City, Mondays, sign-up at 8:30 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m.
Open Mic Night, Penguin’s Comedy Club, Cedar Rapids, Wednesdays, sign-up at 6:30 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m.
Hitchhike Open Mic, High Ground Cafe, Iowa City, Thursdays, 8 p.m.
Little Village’s 10th Annual Roast of Iowa City hosted by Audrey Brock, The Mill, Iowa City, Sunday, Oct. 6, 5:30 p.m.
Witching Hour Festival Comedy Showcase w/ Meredith Kachel, Cameron Gillette and Arish Singh, The Mill, Friday, Nov. 1, 9:30 p.m.
Floodwater Comedy Festival, Iowa City, Feb. 27-29, 2020
Talitha Ford is from Ottumwa, Iowa, but lives in Iowa City with all her plants. She is an alumna of Janice Improv. She hopes you’re having a nice day. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 271.