Lookin’ for Laughs

Iowa isn’t on the map for stand-up comedy, at least not yet. But stand-up comedian Joel Fry is trying to change all that with the first annual Iowa Comedy Festival, which will premiere Oct. 12-16 in Des Moines.

A native of Keswick, Iowa–a town of about 300 people–Fry said he always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. So after high school he hit the road to Des Moines, looking for any stage that would have him. Fast forward to the present, and he’s serving as executive director of the second largest Midwest comedy festival and has invited tons of Iowa-born stand-up friends to perform, including Josh Alton, Jake Johannsen and Greg Althoff, along with 50 other comedians competing for the spotlight.

“Grassroots comedy movements are an awesome thing; they allow for a comedy scene to exist in an area without a comedy club,” Fry said.

Fry said he’s been astonished by the variety of comedy and improv artists coming out of Eastern Iowa. The popularity of Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids, managed by Danny Franks, has particularly impressed the young comedian.

Other local Iowa scenes include bars doubling as comedy joints. While most Iowa Citians are accustomed to the pumping music and loud chatter coming from The Summit on a Friday night, walk by on a Wednesday evening and you might hear some laughs instead. According to their website, this November, Wednesday night comedy events are slated to return to The Summit, on Clinton Street in downtown Iowa City, featuring everything from hypnotists to comedy singers.

“There are a ton of dedicated and talented comedy dorks in Iowa who are excited to strengthen the community here,” University of Iowa graduate and stand-up comic Amanda Geisel said. Geisel has had the pleasure of opening for some big acts, too. In 2009, she opened at the Cedar Rapids Penguin’s for “Comedians of Comedy” star Maria Bamford.

As an Iowa comic, Geisel said there’s a certain bond that comes with the territory.

“It’s been really energizing to see that enthusiasm, especially as a newcomer to performing stand-up.”

Des Moines native and Iowa Comedy Festival participant Josh Alton now lives in Chicago, where stand-up comedy is more prominent and there are several places to do it. Like Fry, he moved to a bigger city to pursue the art of comedy. He’s opened for the likes of Dave Attell, Andy Kindler and Greg Giraldo, but he doesn’t forget where he came from. His start at the Des Moines Funny Bone was a great experience, and he hopes other comedy clubs will open throughout the state. In the meantime, he encourages events like the Iowa Comedy Festival.

“Yeah, there is often a stereotype that we all live like the Amish here in Iowa,” Alton said. “One of my jokes that deals with that goes, ‘People think that everyone in Iowa is a farmer, like there are no other jobs available, other than being a farmer. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, my dad is not a farmer. My dad is the town blacksmith. My mom churns butter for money on the side. So you see, there are many other jobs available in Iowa, other than being a farmer.’”

But even though Penguin’s in Cedar Rapids is going strong and Fry is organizing a massive comedy festival, comedy clubs are having a hard time keeping the doors open and laughs coming with various obstacles, especially in a suffering economy.

Though Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids bounced back with a new location in the Clarion Hotel, the 2008 floods destroyed its original downtown location, creating a temporary road block for touring summer comics that year. Since the move, the hotel location seems to be a favorite for comedians, Franks says, because of its shallow room and intimate stage-to-table setting.

In June, Penguin’s Comedy Club in Davenport–under the same ownership of Cedar Rapids businessman Jeff Johnson–shut its doors due to defaulted rent. The club hopes to reopen elsewhere in the Quad Cities, although there’s no timetable yet. Fry said he was disappointed to hear the Davenport location shut its doors, but ultimately, he said, comics can perform anywhere.

“When comics come together and produce shows at smaller rooms, or rent out theaters, or do 10 minutes at a coffee shop poetry slam, they’re cultivating a scene by themselves without strings attached,” he said.

Despite Iowa’s ability to cultivate small rooms with big headliners or to triumph over hardships, there are still some misconceptions about stand-up in the corn state.

“I really don’t know if people in Iowa see live, local stand-up comedy as a viable form of mainstream entertainment… yet,” he said. “They see the local music scene that way, but comedy here still hasn’t broken through to the extent that it should. It will, though.”

“Everyone likes to laugh,” Alton said. “It doesn’t matter if you live in New York City, Los Angeles, or Hopkinton, Iowa. People are the same in that they like to laugh and have a good time.”

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