Comedy: Assessing the state of standup in Columbus

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

Over the last five or six years standup fans in Columbus have been treated to an escalation of quality performers and shows. It was fostered by a number of hard-working comics dedicated to becoming better on stage while creating admirable shows.

Still, the notion of "Columbus comedy" is a difficult one to pin down. Some champion the city as an up-and-coming place that's on the verge of receiving a regional, or even national, reputation. Others feel Columbus has made big advancements, but attaching this hype is a pipe-dream at best and an undeserved self-congratulatory wank-fest at worst. (Personally, predicting the future of standup in Columbus is challenging, but its overall improvement and the growing number of talented comics shows real promise.)

The best approach to gauging the state of standup is talking with those on the inside. So I sat down with five local comics - veterans Justin Golak, Laura Sanders and Sumukh Torgalkar, who've organized the Comedy Super Show this weekend, and two less-experienced, yet talented comics in Danny Stratton and Mike Meyers - to get their take.

For as much as local standup has improved, there's still a lot more that needs to happen before the comics think Columbus will have a strong scene.

"I'm very proud with what's [been] accomplished … but I'm not going to be all gung-ho about Columbus comedy because I hate that term. I don't know what that means," said Torgalkar during the roundtable discussion with the comics last week at Surly Girl Saloon, home to the city's best comedy open mic.

What Torgalkar and the other comics mean is Columbus has funny people, solid open mics and showcase shows, and has achieved a great deal. But so-so audience attendance and other opportunities changed some comic's outlook.

Golak has moved toward improving solely as a comedian. He's organized a number of local shows, including the year-long "15 and Killin' It" venture with Torgalkar and Sanders - a bold approach that required all three to come up with 15 minutes of new material for each monthly show - that's the foundation of Comedy Super Show. That's not his main goal now.

"Danny is the wave of the future. He's funny and running shows," Golak said. "As far as infrastructure, we passed that stage. That's for people who've been doing it for two or three years."

Stratton runs the weekly Volstead Comedy Showcase at Sidebar 122 every Thursday, and feels responsible to make sure he's created a lineup that features some of the best in Columbus.

"I feel like if I have the opportunity to give stage time to people who deserve it, I should do whatever I can," Stratton said.

The work Stratton puts in means Volstead is a pinnacle among the weekly shows. It makes the $3 cover a fantastic deal, but it's for a reason. Sure, the comics want to be compensated for this quality product. It's also about creating a "handshake," as Sanders put it, with the audience that promises a great show and in return they should be attentive.

"Now when people ask me what show should I go to, I don't have to [say], 'I have an open mic.' I can actually say there are these shows where people are picked to perform so you'll have a really good time," Sanders said. "Comedy and people who book shows have more of a foothold … now we have a product to offer, you should pay us for it because we're good at it."

Making money doing standup can be difficult. Most comics have other jobs, and in Columbus that's maybe just the nature of the beast. Until an established comedy club supporting local comics with regular booked showcases - the comics all point to "Go Bananas" in Cincinnati as a good example - a steady stream of locally-based income is unlikely. It's one of the main reasons all five of the comics I spoke to take paid road gigs as often as possible.

I joined a recent trip to Indianapolis with Meyers, Stratton, Torgalkar and Golak. The Sunday night show was fairly well-attended (especially considering the snowy weather), and nearly every audience member congratulated and thanked the comedians. One even hugged Torgalkar because he liked his set so much. But the attendants didn't match the brilliantly funny and well-run 90-minute standup.

So the road, or even moving, is the future for local comics who feel they've accomplished all they can here. Golak is grateful that Columbus was a great place to improve his comedy, but felt he needs to move on if he wants to keep improving, like a number of others have done.

"Being a forerunner of Columbus comedy … is a stepping stone on its own. It's something that we've moved past. I know for sure I'm moving, and everyone has thought about moving or doing something more personal for their career," Golak said.

"I'm very proud with what we accomplished with it, but now it's time to turn our attention to just being performers and getting outside what Columbus is," Torgalkar reiterated.

The veterans want to push themselves by being around other comics who share the same goal - to become a professional. Torgalkar says doing comedy here has been fun, but sometimes "the fun" takes away from the urgency required to become a professional. Golak, as usual, is blunter, referring to a "hobbyist" culture that exists in local comedy.

"I don't care about carrying the trash along. Leave that by the side of the curb. That you can perform every night [in Columbus] is good because if you want to, you will. And if you don't, fuck you. You have people bitch [about not getting put on booked shows], but almost exclusively it's the people I never see out," Golak said of those who aren't dedicating their time to improving, merely appearing at an occasional open mic with the same material.

While Golak may seem cynical, it's more about championing the comics who work hard, which is why he points to Meyers.

"When I bombed the first time it was the worst feeling in the world. I literally ran out of Surly Girl. Then I met Justin, Sumukh and Laura, and they're all very supportive; [told me] to keep writing, keep doing it," Meyers said.

The Comedy Super Show is a great example of keeping at it. It will feature a "best of" from both "15 & Killin' It" - curated sets from the three-plus hours Golak, Sanders and Torgalkar accumulated over the year - and the last year of "Monday Night Live," a sketch comedy show involving many local standup comedians. The four shows, two on Friday and Saturday, promise to be a must-see comedy show, local or not. And hopefully, there could be a similar show in the future, because if there's one way Columbus standup has improved, it's with opportunity.

"You can pretty much do comedy every night of the week, which is insane," Stratton said. "From when I started [almost three years ago] to now, it's doubled in size of open mics and available stage time. Last month I had a two-week period where I got on stage every night."

As long these opportunities exist, and comics are willing to put in the work, Columbus should have a stable and strong standup presence. Meaning if the best move on, there's a good chance others are coming up right behind them.

Comedy Super Show

7:30 p.m. & 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21-22

MadLab Theatre

227 N. Third St., Downtown