A barstool and microphone left on a small stage isn’t just a scene from New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. Iowa has it’s comedy clubs too. Though few in number, a visit to any of these comedy havens rewards the audience with just as much laughter and talent as you’d find in the entertainment capitals of the big cities.
Iowa is home to several comedy-only clubs including Funny Bone Comedy Club in Des Moines, Jokers Comedy Club in Cedar Falls and Penguin’s Comedy Club, located in both Cedar Rapids and Davenport just to name a few. Many of these clubs, especially the Penguin’s franchise, brings in anyone from “Saturday Night Live” and Comedy Central celebrities to local and Midwest-favorite feature acts.
Life lessons in the Midwest
Jay Rhymer of Sioux City has been doing stand-up purely for the love of comedy. Friends and family recognized his quick wit and encouraged him to give stand-up a try.
“Being from Iowa was different in a major way. Iowa isn’t exactly the world headquarters of stand-up comedy,” Rhymer said. “So it’s harder to get stage time, to get advice and to get noticed.”
But one thing’s for certain, Rhymer said, and that’s the work you can get touring the Midwest. Rhymer finds the Midwest audience a fun-loving crowd to entertain because small-towns are often limited for other genres of entertainment.
“Also, big cities get big-name comics regularly. In smaller towns it is more of an even when you [a comic] come to town,” he said. “Often times the comedy show is the only live entertainment in town that night. Those people tend to really appreciate you driving to their town and entertaining them. In turn, it’s a great way to cut your teeth as a comic.”
Danny Franks worked as a stand-up comic for several years, followed by a string of odd jobs before settling in as the manager and emcee at the relocated and remodeled Penguin’s Comedy Club in the Cedar Rapids Clarion Hotel and Convention Center. Franks said Iowa and the Midwest is a great place to get a feel for diverse audiences.
“Chicago is more into sketch comedy and improv, and big cities like L.A. are more diverse and in-your-face,” he said. “Some comedians use small clubs in the Midwest as a place to knock out upcoming TV specials as a test-run. They can see the audience up-close and get their reactions.”
MTV’s “Road Rules” reality star and Louisiana native Theo Von has been on the comedy circuit since 2002, and loves the opportunity to tour through the Midwest, especially in Iowa and Illinois where he has childhood links. His mother attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids and his grandparents lived in Kewanee, Illinois.
“I like the Midwest because it’s like a museum. Every time I come to places like Iowa and small-city Illinois, I’m reminded of where good people come from and how important family is,” Von said. “They are different in that you can be more real with the audience. They are more patient, and they understand that you are a person as well, not just a jester.”
“The biggest differences between Iowa and big cities anywhere can be summed up as access and attitude,” veteran comedian and Midwest native Mike Mercury said. “Plus—and this is certainly a generalization—people in big cities definitely have a sort of crust to them. They seem to have more self-defense mechanisms on display, tend to be more jaded and cynical, they’re a bit world-weary.”
Not all it’s cracked up to be
Comedian and entertainer Chris Gummert has a different perception of Midwest and Iowa crowds and describes his experience of stand-up in Iowa as a bit of a challenge.
Gummert, a Grundy Center, Iowa native, started out with open-mic nights at Funny Bone Comedy Club in Des Moines and won the Funny Bone Funniest Person in Iowa contest in 1998. His gigs ranged from banquet halls to living rooms.
“It was actually a very humbling experience,” he said.
Humbling is one way to put it. Gummert said some of the hardest audiences he’s performed for have been Iowans—and dealing with hecklers and short attention spans are a needed skill in the stand-up industry.
“My experiences with Iowa audiences have not always been the best,” he said, noting one performance where the big-screen TVs received more attention than his act.
“I was 20, talking about dating and psychology, and I was performing for people who were usually in their 50s and wanted fart jokes,” Rhymer said. “I don’t care how funny you are, no one can compete with ribeye and a baked potato, either.”
In comparison to other comics, Gummert said he actually preferred the big-city audiences who were more open to his material than the narrow-mindedness of the Iowa crowd.
“I find that Iowa crowds break into one of two directions: either polite to a fault or drunk and disorderly.”
In November, Richie Holiday and Mike Mercury got to see that disorderly, overactive audience, where interruptions and crude reactions were posing distractions throughout their sets. Mercury said after 20 years in the business, he can handle the audience. For Holiday, it was not so pleasing.
“I can’t stand it. I just want to go up there and do my act. I think the Midwest crowd is so uptight, receptive but uptight. The worst place is Minnesota, they are stoic,” Holiday said, with a nod from Mercury in agreement. “They won’t make a move or a smile, and after the show they’ll tell you they loved it. It’s bizarre.”
“It was an angry holiday crowd tonight,” Mercury said with a laugh. “And I joked about it but, you know, they were really hostile.”
And it’s not just on-stage where the burdens can weigh the business down. Jeff Johnson, owner of the Penguin’s franchise, said behind-the-scene troubles come just as easily. Some shows may be a gamble with success and hosting amateurs may bring a few problems with poorly arranged acts.
“The downside of amateur night is you get people that aren’t really funny, that just want to try it,” Johnson said. “They think by watching other shows and comics they can go up on stage and steal other comic’s materials.”
Johnson said one amateur in Cedar Rapids has been stealing jokes and getting in trouble with comics “all over the place.”
“People fall for that, which is too bad. [But] In general it’s a nice outlet for people to give it a shot. Every single comic started out that way.”
Outside of the club, there can be just as many misconceptions. Friends, family and acquaintances often ask Johnson about what “good acts” will be stopping in the club.
“Every comic we have is funny,” Johnson said. “People don’t get that. They think they’re all local people, or they’re all dirty, because they went to a show that was dirty 10 years ago.”
Johnson said there’s a stereotype that “only certain people are funny” or that good, clean fun is hard to come by—both of which are false.
“I book based on what the audience finds funny. I don’t book any shows that aren’t funny. That’s probably the one downfall [of owning a club]—people have a thought in their head that if they’re not big, they’re not good.”
Running the show
Cedar Rapids native Jeff Johnson returned to the area after spending some time in Chicago where the comedy club business was an expensive operation. He found a dying downtown club in Cedar Rapids and decided to knock the dust off, opening Penguin’s Comedy Club, which has now been a city staple for almost 20 years.
Doing all the booking himself, Johnson brings in both big-names and no-names–a mix of Midwest comics and national acts–and squeezes in one night a month of amateur and open-mic night. Some amateurs-turned-full-time comics like Tim Sullivan, Chris Schlichting, and Mike Brody all got their starts at Penguin’s Comedy Club. “Last Comic Standing” star Tammy Pescatelli also began her career in small clubs and made frequent visits to Penguin’s.
“The best parts [of the business] for me are seeing the amateurs succeed, that’s cool. The second, to be honest, is being able to entertain people,” Johnson said. “I can’t remember the tens of thousands that have seen comedy in Cedar Rapids or the Quad-Cities because of people I’ve booked.”
While comedy clubs work in larger metro areas like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, college towns are harder to please. Johnson said he opened a comedy club in the Iowa City pedestrian mall several years ago, but saw little benefit from its location and audience.
“College students don’t want to pay 10 bucks,” Johnson said. “Even if they pay six or seven to get in, they want to buy drinks for a dollar.”
His Iowa City attempt only stayed open for about six months and Johnson returned to focusing his attention on Cedar Rapids and starting a second Penguins Comedy Club in the Quad City Freight House in Davenport seven years ago.
For Iowa City business manager Alan Eckhardt, the comedy has not stopped at the borders of Iowa City. One of Eckhardt’s businesses, The Summit, is a popular social spot for weekend gatherings and college students, but Wednesday night is devoted to stand-up comedy. Eckhardt said his devotion to the Wednesday night comedy shows comes from the hope to allow another option for students besides getting drunk.
“We do it on Wednesdays for the college kids. It’s hard to get locals to come downtown on a regular basis,” he said. “It’s a way to be out with people, and yeah, you can drink but you’re not so much going for that. There’s something to do, more than getting smashed. There’s not too many options for college students to do anything but drink.”
Eckhardt is a fan of stand-up comedy himself, and enjoys the chance to bring acts, no matter what size, to downtown establishments. But catering to chatty college students is easier said than done. Some come to see the show, he said, but for others it’s just background noise.
“It’s hard to get people to really want to see a show. We battle with that. People come down in the summer when the kids are gone. You get people that actually wanna see it.”
Let the good times roll
In the hopes of a fun night in Cedar Rapids, Rossilyn Babington and Chad Gloede found themselves at Penguin’s Comedy Club for the Richie Holiday and Mike Mercury show.
“This is the first time I’ve been to the new location,” said Babington, who had seen several shows at the flooded-out downtown location. “I liked the show; I had a lot of fun.” Gloede, who hasn’t frequented many comedy shows, said he’d come back for more.
For comedians venturing through the Midwest’s changing seasons and passing visitors, that’s all they want to hear.
“Comedy is a tough business, and comics should stick together. What’s good for one is good for all,” Rhymer said. “More comics should think that way. The more comedy shows there are the more work for everyone.”
Mercury enjoys his experience at Penguin’s, despite the late November show’s rambunctious audience.
“Not only are the audiences always great but Jeff Johnson and his staff always treat the comedians with respect and not-so-common courtesy,” Mercury said. “When your performers are happy and feeling appreciated, the audience benefits. We’re pros so we can work through less than ideal circumstances.”
Through it all, those involved in Iowa and Midwest comedy continue to come back for the genuine audience, the great clubs and the fun of the job.
“People in Iowa tend to be a little warmer. Friendlier. Receptive. Appreciative. Even the chicks dig me in Iowa,” Mercury said with a laugh.
Cedar Rapids breathes new life
For Franks, laughs are coming a little easier, now that his Penguin’s Comedy Club has found a new, dry home.
The Iowa River flooding in June had devoured Penguin’s Comedy Club in downtown Cedar Rapids, leaving only a computer, a few signed headshots and some memorabilia undamaged. The rest was history.
“We lost all our files, our whole file cabinet that had resumes and CDs or DVDs of comedians that we were thinking about bringing to the club,” Franks said. “We’re still in the rebuilding process.”
Franks said Penguins’ business is better than ever. Visiting sports teams and their families and fans often stay at the Clarion Hotel and visit the club, along with other guests looking for fun without leaving the hotel. The freshly painted purple walls and penguin decor have made the new location feel even better than the last.
“The downtown club was dark and dingy, it’s great to be somewhere new,” Franks said. He hopes to see plans for expansion in the next year, taking seating from 120 to over 200.
Comedians took note of the damage done to the small-town comedy club, and came out of the woodwork to help. More than 10 comics helped perform a sold-out benefit show that raised money for the relocation and construction costs. “They helped out a lot,” he said. “And they did it all for free.”
It’s not like there was little business before the flood. Both Penguin’s locations have always had great traffic from comedy lovers and big names like Louis C.K., Andy Kindler and Dave Attell have made frequent stops in the humble corn state.
Franks said the fans that come to Penguin’s in Cedar Rapids are genuine, and while some are fans of the headliners performing, many just come out for a good time.
“It’s like the movies or theater, it’s entertainment,” Franks said. “It’s a chance to forget all the bad stuff from the day and unwind with a few laughs.”