Columbus Comedy: Laughing matters
And when you got on stage, the crowd would probably be more excited to order a drink than applaud. At one point, even The Funny Bone struggled to attract people to its local showcase. Some nights, it was cheaper just to turn off the lights.
But local comics have been leaving the cliches behind - creating their own events to showcase unique voices, fostering alternative sketch and improv groups, and finding audiences that are open to anything.
"If you want to build a scene of alternative, edgy local talent, you have to build it yourself," said comedian Rye Silverman. "It's the punk-rock mentality. You can't go to the established things and say, 'Give us a voice.' You have to demand your own voice."
Those who survived a comedy wasteland less than a decade ago now insist that Columbus is on the cusp of being a great comedy town. The Columbus Comedy Festival, a coming-out party of sorts, will showcase this diverse scene next weekend at Wild Goose Creative.
It's a clear sign that laughter is back.
"I feel like there's a lot of great stuff happening with Columbus comedy," added Silverman, who has emceed at The Funny Bone since 2002. "I think there are a lot more people who are doing their own thing and have their own unique voices."
Many of them will be heard during Wild Goose's three-day shindig, which will highlight stand-up, sketch comedy, improv and the out-of-the-box material that characterizes much of what's happening citywide.
If you've got something funny, those about to convene at the North Campus creative space want to hear it.
"We've been inspired by other people in town who have made concerted efforts to provide venues for stand-up comics and improv groups," said Nick Dekker, co-founder of Wild Goose. "We wanted to be part of that and help out as much as possible."
The festival mission is two-fold: expose new audiences to the city's diverse comedy scene and get them to join it. Booked shows and sets by local veterans will be followed by workshops for those after their first laughs.
Wild Goose has provided one venue for local DIY energy with "Blank, Blank, Party Time, Excellent," a comedy showcase held the fourth Thursday of every month. Co-hosts Nathan Smart and Colin Perkins welcome anything on stage - except stand-up.
Already they've witnessed random sketches, homemade videos, humorous personal essays and an infomercial about a new product called a "calendar."
"I've been continuously surprised by how much there actually is going on," said Perkins, who once thought a return to Columbus from New York City would mean an end to his comedy career. "I think there's a genuine sense that people want to grow the scene. People want to see more shows popping up different places, and they want to see new things, too."
Elsewhere, more traditional venues enjoying renewed interest have provided a stable backbone for new talent. Comics have established open-mic nights across the city: Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North, Hey Hey Bar & Grill in German Village, The Treehouse in Grandview and others.
"When I first started, I only knew of one night, and there would probably be 10 people that would go up," Smart said. "Now, if you go to Surly Girl, there's 20 people going up. It's a long night."
More rooms, bigger crowds and diverse approaches have helped a handful of veteran comics and younger talent, who thrive on collaboration, mutual support and a try-anything spirit. More than ever, audiences are eager for material that ventures beyond the brick wall.
"This is really the time for comedy in Columbus," said Zachariah Baird, who hosts "The Greatest Show," a regular variety night in the Peach District. "We have so many people who have been dedicated to it for so many years that it has to be good. The whole scene is getting to be amazing."