Rocks glasses, tumblers, coffee mugs and notebooks. Lots of notebooks. It’s a common scene at one of Iowa City’s open mic nights, where aspiring comedians try out new material. As a comedy lover and Iowa City resident I am happy to take a few bombs alongside the new favorite jokes because I love that there are people in this town who want to take time out of their day to make me laugh. Afterall, who couldn’t use a good laugh?
Watching comedians develop new material, test jokes and feed off the audience can be electric. While Iowa hasn’t exactly risen to the top of the comedy food chain, these days, it’s not for lack of trying. Tom Garland, 24, is a stand-up comic who calls The Iowa City Yacht Club home. Every Monday night at 9:30, he and other area comics get on stage and perform for whoever might be in attendance, whether it’s 10 people or 100.
“There’s really no way to test [material] except up there,” Garland says, sipping from a glass of ice water watching as the standard prop–a barstool–is placed on the stage.
“Open mics are an opportunity for me to find out that usually only 10 percent of what I think or say is actually funny,” agrees Iowa City comedian and UI student Bobby Ray Bunch, host of the Mill’s Tuesday night series, which takes place about once a month.
“Getting into stand up,” Bunch warns, “you’re going to bomb.” And that seems to be okay. It’s a chance to give everything a shot, see their friends perform and get inspired.
“Watching other open mic guys is fun for me because I have gotten to see guys from their first time all the way ‘til now,” Bunch said, “and watching them develop an idea into a five to seven minute joke that makes the crowd roar is a beautiful thing.”
An Air Force veteran, Bunch jokes about everything from his service in the military to being a non-traditional student in a class full of 19-year-olds. Though he just moved to Iowa City in August 2011, he’s making his mark and rounding up fellow comics from around the area and the state to take the stage. “I was fortunate enough to be able to put on my own show at The Mill, and I wanted it to be different than the rest of the shows in town,” Bunch said. His monthly series gives him a chance to “handpick comedians and cluster them together to make the best show possible.” With a local focus, the downtown series is a nice complement to other venues in the area like Iowa City’s First Avenue Club and the Funny Bone or Penguin’s in Des Moines, all of which have recently attracted national acts like Steve-O and Carlos Mencia.
On a recent Tuesday night, Bunch took the stage with Des Moines comedians (and couple) Ben Herman and Caitlin Feral–two very different comics that each put forth excellent sets focusing on what they seemed to know best: the plight of 20-somethings and the juvenile hilarity that is farts.
“Farts are fucking funny,” Feral yells at the crowd after an awkward silence, and as cringe worthy as it appears on paper, her delivery is successful; the audience busts up laughing, proving once again and probably not for the last time that, well, farts really are fucking funny.
But just like any live performance art, comedy faces the same challenges here as it would in Chicago or New York: uptight crowds, unpleasant venues (like sports bars) and few comedy-only clubs. Bunch admits that coming from–and performing in–Iowa is often an uphill battle.
“We aren’t going to get much exposure doing stand up in Iowa and if a comedian is trying to become well-known or ‘famous’ out of here, the odds are not in Iowa’s favor,” he said.
That being said, he also noted that many venues that used to focus solely on music–including The Mill and The Yacht Club–are now opening their stages to comedy shows.
Jokes might bomb, audience members might leave and awkward silences might linger, but the budding talents keep pushing. So, I keep watching, cheering from the sideline as they try one 5-minute set at a time with only one goal in mind: Make ‘em laugh.