Baltimore’s comedy scene is going DIY too
Published: January 25, 2012
For all his dramatic talents, 25-year-old Alex Braslavsky could probably stand to work on his Mexican accent. Onstage hosting Chucklestorm, his monthly comedy night at the Ottobar, he manages something like a parody of a parody, all tortured vowels and outmoded “meesters.” It’s a terrible impression, the kind of acting that inspires a bathroom or beer break.
But, lame as the accent is, Braslavsky is not. Decked out in a Hawaiian floral print and pencil mustache, Braslavsky is performing a performer, making a stereotype of a stereotype, and taking a certain amount of glee in his racially charged Droste effect. His comedic rhythm, always a patient beast of long silences and telegraphed setups, slows to an epileptic crawl and the character, “Hector Arroyo,” tells long story-jokes, each punctuated by a DJ blasting jumpy, Tito Puente-style mambos. As bits go, it skews somewhere between cute, offensive, and brilliant. But he knows this crowd. He trusts them. And, as expected, they eat it up.
“Messing with the audience is funny to me,” Braslavsky says in an interview. A gigging comedian as well—he works with Chucklestorm co-host Dan Friedman in the surreal improv/standup duo “Dan and Alex”—he’s paid a few dues, trying out new talent nights at traditional clubs like Magooby’s Joke House in Timonium and the Comedy Factory in the Inner Harbor. But Braslavsky flinched at both the usual pay-to-play policy for newbies, which often involves friend and drink minimums, and the clubs’ style of comedy. Raised on absurdist sketch TV like Stella and Mr. Show, he had trouble relating to the tags and punch lines of traditional standup. So when the owners of the Ottobar surprised him with the opportunity to start his own comedy night in 2010, he jumped at it, collaborating with the venue as it brought “alternative” comedians like Neil Hamburger, Michael Ian Black, and Brian Posehn to town.
“I think it would be cool to perform in front of a comedy-club audience,” Braslavsky says. “But there’s a different vibe. Some of the zanier stuff doesn’t go over with that kind of crowd. They have their idea of what comedy is, what they’ve been used to for 30 years. My goal was to branch out and break the pace. People are looking for something different.”
Armed with a DIY spirit and an idiosyncratic, often jokeless brand of humor, Braslavsky is characteristic of a new wrinkle in the Baltimore comedy landscape. Inspired by local music and theater experiments such as Whartscape and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, as well as the “anything goes” multimedia circus of comedy outlets like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, YouTube, and funnyordie.com, area comedians are bypassing traditional venues in search of a wilder, scruffier comic beast.
Local comedian Jenn Tisdale, who helps run the Windup Space’s Regional Bohemian Hour, is one of those trying to push the envelope. “We do try to do something different,” she says. The Hour, run by John Bennett (also of the Mondo Baltimore film series) and organized by Tisdale and a number of her peers, mostly saves its experimentation for the format. The show casts its net wide, welcoming all manner of comics, screening videos by sketch groups like Strictly Platonic—a comedy troupe to which Tisdale and Bennett belong—tacking on the occasional open mic, and staging Friars Club-style roasts. But for Tisdale, a more traditional standup comic with some club experience, helping start a night has been more pragmatic exercise than aesthetic line in the sand.
“That’s just how you do it,” she says. “If you can’t find any rooms to do comedy, the norm is just to start your own room. It’s a broad, well-known idea—if you live in an area that maybe doesn’t have many open mics, you start your own open mic. That’s how you give yourself the opportunity to do comedy.”
While Braslavsky and Tisdale formed their DIY nights as alternatives and auxiliaries to the big clubs, other shows, like Mason Ross and Ben O’Brien’s monthly Wham City Comedy Night at the Zodiac, have bypassed traditional comedy entirely, drawing instead on members of Baltimore’s tight-knit arts community—including the Wham City collective itself—for what amounts to a prebooked (but fairly nonexclusive) open mic. O’Brien admits he launched the event mostly to develop his own material, but gets excited talking about how it evolved and became a farm league system for Wham City’s semiannual comedy tour, which travels all over the country. Yet despite the prominent use of the word “comedy” in the titles of both events, he hesitates to pigeonhole his efforts as comedy-centric.
“I decided to start this comedy night to help me connect with people,” he says. “It’s hard in a small city like this. But sometimes I feel like, Why do I call it the comedy night? Sometimes I just want to get something that’s more weird than funny. Comedy isn’t our central focus.”
O’Brien, a video artist whose credits include videos for Beach House and Dan Deacon, began his comedy career as a hobbyist, working open mics at his alma mater, SUNY Purchase. After moving to Baltimore, he formed the offbeat (and funny) web series Showbeast (which also features City Paper Calendar Editor Erin Gleeson) and started to book and manage the Wham City Comedy Tour; when talking about comedy, he often presents both collaborations as his ideal outlets. The tour’s second iteration, comprised of one-act plays, joke lectures, standup, and monologues, made its way to venues as various as Moogfest, an electronic music festival in Asheville, N.C., and Vassar College this fall, eventually wrapping up last November in a packed Courier Theater, a new venue on Preston Street.
The enthusiastic response to the tour heartened some local comedians—Braslavsky marvels at it as “a great illustration of what you can do with different elements of comedy”—but O’Brien views its success as self-contained, for better or worse. “I’ve just had to accept the fact that we’re not comedians’ comedians,” he says. Instead, he identifies Wham City’s comedic work with the theater, music, and art communities. “Sadly, I don’t feel as connected to the Baltimore comedy scene as I’d like to,” he says. “I’m not a competitive person, and I know the standup comedy scene is competitive. I’d rather create something that’s really our own, that’s not in the same realm. [The Wham City Comedy Tour] is the most successful thing I’ve ever done.” O’Brien admits that in crafting an alternative scene, he’s sidestepping possible comic rivals. “Yes, it’s absolutely avoidant,” he says, laughing. “But I think it’s positively avoidant.”
For all the new interest in comedy and the success of the tour, the grassroots approach has only served to offer a few new venues to local comedians, not an alternative system—at least, not yet. Open mics, the traditional venues for honing material, still blink in and out. Meanwhile, even the newer DIY shows keep recurring acts on a light rotation. While comedians agree Baltimore is a great place to start such a show, few think it can sustain a comedy career, or even the beginnings of one.
“When I started doing comedy and had some good reactions, part of me was just like, Oh man, maybe I have a whole other creative thing that I can really put energy into,” local comedian Mickey Freeland says. A longtime local rapper with an easy talent for comedy, he found his good-natured, raunchy voice at a Wham City event. But after traveling up to Philadelphia and down to Arlington to do open mics, Freeland began to think twice about the regional comedy hustle. Faced with hours of travel just to get seven minutes of performance in front of an unsympathetic crowd, he bemoans the lack of consistent local work. “I want to get better,” he says. “I want to get as good as I can be. I don’t want to half-ass anything, but sometimes you don’t know how much ass is required.”
Tisdale, who regularly does open mics in D.C., paints a similar picture. “There’s just not enough opportunities,” she says, pointing to the many local venues, such as Joe Squared and the New Age Dine and Dance, that have scrapped off-night open mics after they failed to attract new customers. “All we want to do is show up, do our jokes, and hone our comedy. In booked shows, where you should use your Grade A material, I [have to] bring out new jokes then. I work out new jokes whenever I can.” She laughs. “I mean, I did some new stuff when I opened for Pauly Shore.”
Braslavsky, Tisdale, and Freeland all mention New York City and Los Angeles as possible future career moves, citing the multitude of open mics and pre-existing structures to support comedians of all stripes. But O’Brien, a Baltimore lifer, takes a more philosophical approach to comedy’s struggle for a local presence: He likens it to the converted warehouse space where he lives and has a studio.
“Just like we’re in a warehouse that’s built for something else, a lot of the DIY stuff that’s not music is living in the music scene,” he says. “We exist in the in-between. It’s not set up for comedy or plays. There’s a lot of potential, but you have to make it yourself. And any of the scenes are going to be kind of small and not able to branch out much.” He pauses. “But you can do what you want to do. And that’s what’s great about Baltimore.”
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