Punchline Comedy Doubles Its Comedy

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In 2010 comedians Anthony Calderon and Mike Baskett started an open mic on Capitol Hill at Jai Thai. They saw Seattle as having little opportunity for comics starting out to get stage time if they didn’t already have an “in” at the comedy clubs. It isn’t really a meritocracy at most comedy clubs when it comes to getting stage time. According to Calderon, “There wasn’t the Friday night opportunity for comics in this town. For you to come out and do a spot at a show, not at a comedy club– that’s why we started this.” Baskett was friends with the bartender at the time, and they set up a meeting with co-owner and manager Myron Johnson. Soon after, Punchline Fridays was born.

A fact that has remained constant throughout the show’s run is that everyone involved with production also has a day job. In 2011 Baskett needed to step back from producing after taking a new job that required more hours than he had to spare, and Calderon was splitting his time with hosting at a comedy club in eastern Washington. The two asked Rick Taylor and Chris Ferguson to take the lead. At the time Taylor was about a year into doing stand up, but from many years of working in radio he had a whole set of skills pertaining to organization and promotion that he was eager to implement. Becoming a producer on an already established show was a perfect fit.

First Taylor and Ferguson were a married couple. After fifteen years of success in that arena they added the challenge of becoming comedy producers. As many comedians in the scene will be quick to say, the efforts of Chris Ferguson are essential to Punchline’s success. Ferguson isn’t a comic. Instead he shoulders much of the behind the scenes work.

Calderon came back to produce at Punchline a few months after Taylor and Ferguson took over. Directions had changed at the eastern Washington comedy club, and Calderon came back to produce along with the other two. It would seem things have gone very well. The growth of comedy at Jai Thai has followed a clear recipe: existing shows get so popular that there aren’t enough spots for everyone who wants to go up, which creates demand for more open mics.

Two years ago they added a Tuesday open mic to the programming. It took awhile to catch on, but before long the list of names soared into the fifties. The show has grown, and Jai Thai has enjoyed the ample sales at the bar. It’s a comic’s clubhouse on open mic nights at Jai Thai. There’s not a ton of food sales going on, but they are making a lot of liquor profit. “[Comics are] broke for food or bus fare, said Taylor, “but never for booze.” Having a comedy show going on in the bar of the restaurant has on occasion led to complaints from the guests, but more often than not it’s a boon rather than a burden. Johnson asserts that the relationship has been great for business.

A large part of the show’s success and popularity comes from the producers’ efforts to be as egalitarian as possible. A comedian’s spot on the show is first come, first served. That means people show up early. “People just show up at 7:00, or earlier,” said Ferguson, “and by 8:00 the line is almost out the door.” (The show doesn’t start until 9:00.)

A lot of places run a bump list. If club regulars, or comics with a more established reputation drop in, there’s a chance of losing your spot on the list. “A bump list means you have to keep track of it,” said Taylor. “We have to minimize the amount of things we have to do for the show when we aren’t in the room doing the show.” Having the signup list go out at a specific time every night creates reliable parameters. It’s part of what everyone involved refers to as the Path. It makes things competitive, but as Taylor said, “Entertainment is a hard business, and if you’re not willing to compete for a spot in the line to get on the open mic to work your craft, then I’ll just be blunt: you’re probably not going to make it as a comedian, because you’re not willing to fight in the way it takes.” What’s interesting about their decision, is that it’s a clear line in the sand between going to a comedy club, and going to a room that does comedy. At a comedy club everything is built from the ground up to support professional comics, with all of the infrastructure that entails, but with a show like this you can’t expect that out of the producers.

Photo courtesy of Chris Ferguson.

Photo courtesy of Chris Ferguson.

Billy Anderson is a comedian who found his voice at Jai Thai. “They have a really good air of fairness in the room,” he said, “but you have to operate within the boundaries of the format. There’s structure, and they’re as fair as they can be, and there’s a path that wasn’t available at the clubs. I think that’s what hooks in people in right now. There’s still not really a clear-cut path anywhere, as there is here at Jai Thai.”

The Path sounds a little cult-ish, but it’s really benign. The Path is showing up and signing up, getting time, and getting better. When some promise is shown the producers offer comics hosting spots, or spots on the showcases. On occasion the thirty minute closing set at one of the Friday showcases is one of the comics who came up in the room. It would seem many calories have been burnt in the pursuit of making Jai Thai into a space where comics can be comfortable, and mingle, and become better.

“Rick and Chris are concerned with more than just their own futures,” said Anderson, “which is a rarity in a community with the kind of egos comedy requires. Because of that selfless mentality they have helped create a room that has a feeling of fairness. When you are starting out, realizing how hard comedy is and dealing with the near constant rejection of early open mics, the feeling that there is a place that treats everyone fair and equal is a huge benefit.”

Anderson is now the newest addition to the team of producers at Jai Thai. He was running a show at the Chieftain called Comedy on Trial since October of 2012. Initially things were going great, and management was supportive. However with the opening of Von Trapp’s next door the clientele steadily shifted towards a younger demographic, which wasn’t conducive to comedy.

“Chris and I have always been big supporters of Billy’s show over at the Chieftain,” said Taylor. “We also know what Billy’s trials were working with the Chieftain, so there came the opportunity to bring that show here. A fully formed, fully vetted show here on Saturdays, and we figured if we were going to do that, we’d mitigate our Tuesday open mic pressure with two nights instead of just one.” The trigger was Comedy on Trial being available to come here. Adding a Sunday open mic to the schedule made for a doubling of comedy at Jai Thai to four nights a week.

What’s now on offer at Jai Thai is an open mic Tuesday and Sunday, with a rotating open mic/showcase on Fridays, and every Saturday will be Comedy on Trial. CoT exists in four week chunks. Three weeks of competition, and then the fourth week is a showcase of the winners. It’s a somewhat curated show. Rather than people signing up the night of, like an open mic, the contestants sign up via email a couple weeks out. The show works like this: ten comics perform new material, and the audience gets ballots and are instructed to pick three winners.

“There’s a little bit of show building we do,” said Anderson. “It’s the middle between an open mic and a showcase, because I want it to be all levels of people, but I try to get people that work well together. On our first one [April 6th] we’ve got people who’ve been doing it from six months to five years.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Ferguson.

Photo courtesy of Chris Ferguson.

CoT is it’s own discrete show. The other three producers aren’t involved, except that they share space, promotion, and potentially, talent. With the added shows it is now possible to book more prestigious headliners, as they could perform more than one night, as is often the model with comedy clubs.

The Punchline producers have every intention of making Jai Thai the hub of comedy on Capitol Hill, but not to the detriment of the other shows at other venues. Not only do they produce shows at The Capitol Club and Wild Rose as well, but truly they see part of having a vibrant scene means not only sharing turf, but having a vested interest in the success of other shows. The open mic that Nick Sahoyah runs Scratch Deli, and Emmett Montgomery’s Beard Practice at CC Attle’s are all in cahoots. Besides cross promotion, Scratch Deli and Beard Practice both start early, while Punchline starts late so that there is ample room for all of the shows, and more stage time for everybody. It’s all done quite intentionally.

They fully support the other shows and rooms in Seattle, but the affection and pride that the producers at Jai Thai feel for their space is palpable, and infectious. One example is the wall behind the stage. There are twin dragons vibrantly painted on the wall. The producers take photos of the comics when they are on stage, and quite often these photos become profile pics for comics on social media. They love it. The words Punchline are nowhere to be seen, but everyone recognizes those colorful dragons, and knows exactly where the photos were shot. It’s one of the benefits comics have doing the show — having subsequent access to non-camera phone shots of themselves on stage. Another incentive to do the show is the chance to get on Punch Pod, a podcast that Taylor produces. The podcast is in the range of ten minutes, and it is cut together with his favorite jokes from the shows. It gives a global audience the chance to listen in to a comedy room in Seattle, and in many instances it exists as the first recording for many open-micers. Episodes twenty and forty are both best-of episodes, and would be a good place to start. When asked how many labor hours go into producing Punch Pod, Taylor demurred, but hinted towards a daunting amount of work.

There is still plenty of room to grow for Punchline Comedy. There are three open nights a week still, and the producers are open to one-off shows, and if another opportunity like Comedy on Trial appeared, they would possibly be open to taking on another show. For three years the room has remained the same. They are now making improvements and increasing the number of seats from roughly sixty to seventy-five. If history is any indication, those seats will in all likelihood be filled on the regular. If at some point they grow out of Jai Thai, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to imagine these gentlemen opening their own comedy club. You’ll never get them to admit their long term plans, but all signs point to growth, and considering their impact on the scene, hopefully years of continued success.