We Live For Funny: The Evolution Of The Utah Comedy Scene
There has been a lot of talk and chatter about our humble little live comedy scene, and the stand-up comics it produces, here in Utah. Once merely a stop-over in a traveling act, Utah may not have been a destination for comedy in anyone’s mind. These days, comedy fans can see a high-quality comedy show nearly every night of the week, and the opportunities for new comedians are plentiful. We’ve come a long way in quality, quantity and making a name for ourselves on a national scale. In the first of a three part series to uncover the ins and outs of comedy here in the state, SLUG sat down for a beer with three veteran comics on the Utah scene, and we got to know things about Utah comedy that even its Bishop doesn’t know.
Utah Comedy – The Comedians
Christopher Stephenson started his Utah comedy career out as a fresh-faced 18 year old, hitting his first open mic 13 years ago in 2002. “I started out as a very happy, positive kind of comic. I wasn’t negative in any way. I had really clean jokes. I had a lot of tampon jokes and a lot of feminine hygiene jokes for some reason. My style has physically changed a lot.” If he could go back and do anything different? “It would be just to write as honestly as possible.” The trick, he says, is that “you have to take what you’re thinking and make the audience see it the exact same way you do.” Still performing and going strong, Stephenson is also one of the founders of the Salt Lake City Comedy Carnivale, performs at the current Funny Fridays at Sandy Station and was also one of the legendary hosts at the long running open mic nights at Mo’s Neighborhood Grille.
Melissa Merlot performed her first open mic in 2005, or as she does the math, five years ago. She’s a natural pick to host numerous long running comedy shows and events all around Salt Lake, won a City Weekly Arty Award for Best Comedian and took over as host for the long running K-Town Komedy shows at Club D.J.s until the last show earlier this year. “I started out as a mini Kathy Griffin,” Merlot states. “All my jokes were about famous people and celebrity gossip.” She laughs, “I actually have the VHS tape of my second open mic ever! They used to record you with VHS.” It took Merlot about a year to weed out her carbon copy elements of celebrity gossip entertainers. “When I started writing more real stuff about my life and being more honest I got a better reception from the audience and that’s kind of how it changed.” She’s learned a few tricks over time that she wish she’d known back then, “I’d write my jokes down!” Sadly, some of the best jokes she feels she’s ever done are now gone forever. “You never really know what’s going to work until you’re on stage.” With the new digital age of recording capabilities at a comic’s fingertips, this is something that can still happen, but is less likely as most comedians are now documenting everything. These days, Merlot has been focusing on her love for hosting, including two years at K-Town that was first started by comedian Steve McInelly six years ago.
Finishing out the panel of veterans in the Utah comedy scene is Guy Seidel. Seidel stepped onto the comedy scene just over 7 years ago and is now a common name in the Utah comedy club scene. He has hosted and headlined shows at Wiseguys Comedy Club, and has opened for numerous comedians on their stops in the state. Seidel remembers his early sets, “I was really high energy when I started. I was a long-haired idiot.” He started out doing shows at the old Trolley Square location for Wiseguys. “Trolley Square was great for local comics,” he says. “Aesthetically it was beautiful. Even if you got 50 people in that room it was electric.”
Stephenson, Merlot and Seidel are household names for even casual fans of Utah comedy, and they all still perform regularly. This gig doesn’t always become a career in comedy that pays all of the bills, and comics often wait decades for their big break. While Utah hasn’t pumped out any worldwide stars, the performers in this state have made names for themselves with some Utah comedy regulars breaking onto the national scene. Ryan Hamilton—who Seidel calls “Disney Clean”—and Bengt Washburn, both still come through Utah regularly when they are touring after starting here locally. Meanwhile, Seidel has teamed up with Comedian Marcus, who was on Last Comic Standing, and the two of them frequently perform on stage together, typically with a guitar in Seidel’s lap.
It isn’t rare that some of the hardest working comedians will often travel the country for a few weeks or months out of the year, making a name for themselves in other bars and clubs. Many comedians that have started out in Utah have relocated to bigger cities like L.A., Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York City, where opportunity is more prevalent. This means that quite realistically, at any point in time the next ‘it’ comedian can be someone whose roots are firmly in Utah comedy—and we’ve got an amazing talent pool to pick from.
An Evolving Art Form
All comics evolve on stage over time. It can often take a long time, even months or years—to develop a personal style and stage presence that is unique and genuinely entertaining to watch. Over the years our panelists have learned new tricks—and seeing them now is vastly different than seeing their sets when they first started out. Stephenson remembers, “I would write about a lot of TV commercials. It took a long time but then I decided to start writing about more personal things.”
Each comic starts out with pretty easy material, typically these are things that are observational, just to test the waters. Seidel adds, “TV is easy to write about when you’re first starting.” He also points out that the problem in this formula is that these types of jokes often have short shelf life. “I think when [you] start, you’re just doing what you think a comedian is supposed to do,” he says. Merlot agrees with him on this, having seen many comedians do similar material starting out. “You’re just doing what you’ve seen,” she says. “After a while you kind of find your own thing and your own voice.”
As a rookie Seidel started out with topical material that he no longer does. “I had a Nickelback joke. The premise is basically that Nickelback sucks. Now everybody fucking hates Nickelback, so they see it coming.” Not all jokes can age well and remain winners as each of the comedians miss some of their old material, but they have learned this lesson for the greater good. “If it’s just about you, it becomes timeless,” says Merlot. “I had this awesome joke about Tila Tequila that I can never do again!”
A Change in Scenery
If you can count on one thing in the Utah comedy scene, it’s that comedy venues generally don’t last forever. When it comes to venues hosting comedy, Seidel says, “It’s cyclical. When one goes another, one pops up.” Some of the locations that have hosted comedy in the past would surprise newcomers. Christopher Stephenson recalls a time when he and other comedians like Levi Rounds were performing stages at the Urban Lounge and Burt’s Tiki Lounge, where they first featured Doug Stanhope when he came through town.
Stephenson remembers playing at Burt’s with Rounds: “The last show we opened for at Burt’s was a punk band called ‘Shat’. They wore adult diapers and giant cock dildos. And there was brown smeared all over the diapers and up their backs. They were incredible. There were dicks hanging off the microphones. That was also the first show we ever had done where we couldn’t smoke inside.”
Merlot has hosted shows in the past at both Club Vegas, which later became Sin City under different management. Then, there were Tuesday night open mic shows at The Vibe in The Complex. Going back even further there were the venues and comedy clubs owned by another veteran comedian, Keith Stubbs. First there was Laughs and then Wiseguys—which opened in West Valley City in 2001. The Trolley Square location for Wiseguys—in the old Hard Rock Salt Lake section of Trolley Square—ran from 2009–2012. Seidel believes that over the course of the last few years, the crowds and comedians coming through Wiseguys have gotten better, with big names getting booked, and shows happening nearly every night of the week.
All three comedians had fond memories of the old downtown location for Mo’s Neighborhood Grille. Stephenson says, “My most comfortable time, and the time I was probably having the most fun with it, was when I was running Mo’s with a collective of comics.” He ran shows with the likes of Arthur Carter, Bob Bedore, Toy Soup, Levi Rounds and Cody Eden. “Every week, all these same comics would be at the show. We owned that room. We would all get on stage and everybody was so relaxed—and it was so free-flowing.” Merlot remembers the old set up there as well, “It was very supportive. Mo’s was really behind comedy.”
Mo’s ran comedy at its original location from 2002 until 2013. “I had a blast there,” Seidel remembers. Stephenson added, “Out of all the rooms I miss, I miss it the most.” Part of its success was that Mo’s was also all-ages, and they brought in some pretty strange comedians. Merlot and Stephenson remember some of the names that came through: Neil Hamburger, Sean Rouse and Andy Andrist, to name a few. Seidel recalls the success of that Sunday night show. “Mo’s had a lot of consistency, too,” he says. Now a room will go up and be dead in two months—it doesn’t have enough time to build a following.”
“Everybody was really into each other’s comedy, too,” says Stephenson. “That’s something that I haven’t every really found since then.” He remembers that the same people in the audience were coming back consistently, sometimes for standing room alone. Troy Taylor, (‘Toy Soup’), started the weekly comedy show at the old Mo’s location downtown around late 2002. The show was held every Sunday night at 10p.m. “It ran that way for so long,” says Stephenson. “It was really cool to be a part of that.” He credits that venue and show to his strong beginning and it helped him get to where he is now. “That really gave me my roots when it comes to my writing and my style, and I made lifetime friends,” he says.
Comedians have lost such venues such as Sin City, 5 Monkeys, The Complex, Muse Music Cafe and Club D.J.s, However, the scene has been getting a surge of venues over the last 2–3 years. Now new shows at the U of U, the new Mo’s Location on 1300 South, and Sandy Station—which has its own separate room for shows, and supports comedy extensively—have started to crop up. More venues are being added all of the time to this growing list. “It takes a very skilled and savvy person, especially in this scene, to put on a successful show that runs for a long time,” says Seidel. The new trend is that established monthly comedy shows are sticking around, and while the show will move from venue to venue, it takes its following with it.
An Evolving Comedy Scene
One of the biggest changes that all three note is the influx of female comedians into the local scene. When starting out, Merlot remembers being one of the few females in town, and often the only one on any given line-up. “There’s way more women now,” she Says. “It wasn’t the case when I started at all. I was always the only girl that was out there all the time for a long time. Women weren’t as interested or as willing to try. Now it’s totally shifted and there’s a lot of women doing it and they are all really funny. They care about writing, they care about jokes.” This can be attributed partially to the mainstream picking up more female comics, and exposing general audiences to the fact that, yes, women really are as funny as the guys.
With female-centric comedians showing up on Netflix and in movie theaters, including the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, and many others, more women are seeing an opportunity to get into comedy, and giving it a shot. “In the mainstream comedy world, you don’t see a lot of women,” says Seidel. However, Seidel thinks it’s a numbers game. With fewer women in comedy, the really great ones stand out faster. “You go to an open mic and there are 30 comics,” says Seidel. Ten of those are good. Of those 30, how many are women? Maybe four.”
Merlot agrees that there are some women on the mainstream radar now. However, she does respond back with a laugh, “Yeah, but they weren’t even around when I started!” Regardless, not being the only female on the scene has been great for Merlot, and other comedians welcome the change. “Guys just accepted me as one of the guys, but now that there’s really ‘hot’ chicks doing comedy, guys tend to behave a little bit better and try harder with their jokes,” she says. Male comedians locally are becoming more sensitive to overtly sexist material and misogynist sets—which is, in turn, bringing even more females into a more welcome atmosphere for comedy.
As a genre, stand-up comedy goes through ebbs and flows, just like any entertainment form. Stand-up had a big heyday in the ‘80s, and another huge resurgence in the 90s, but somewhere in the early 00s it fizzled out for awhile. However, nowadays, the ease of access to comedy on the internet and through other forms of technology has created a new fan base for stand-up comedy. Comedians have multiple platforms to get their material out there, whether it be through YouTube, Vine, social media or other mediums. Merlot attributes some of this to the new surge in podcasting. “It’s inspired a ton of people to get out and try comedy,” she says.
Stephenson has noticed a new trend as well. “Another thing that has grown is [that there are] more younger people,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t know anyone who was even close to my age. Now when I go to open mics there are multiple people there that are 18, 19 or 20. I think they are starting it because of the accessibility of comedy.” With this, some of the styles are changing as well. “Narrative comedy, I think, has become more mainstream,” says Stephenson. It’s not so much sitcom or set-up and punchline jokes, it’s a lot more storytelling in layers.” Stephenson gravitates toward this style because it is what he is a fan of, the millennial favorites being Louis CK, Christopher Titus or Bill Burr. “[George] Carlin didn’t appeal to youth, but these guys do,” Stephenson says.
More Diverse Than You’d Think – A Style for Everyone
Part of what makes the Utah comedy scene so great and keeps it on par with other big comedy metropolitan areas is that even on a small scale, one can find a lot of diversity in performances here. This goes for the types of people doing the comedy, their backgrounds and their unique styles. “I think you’re going to see diversity with comedy anyway, because it’s the reason we do it,” Merlot says. In Salt Lake alone, we’ve had various successful improv groups, wacky comedians, physical comedy and clean comedy, which has an obvious market behind the Zion curtain. But, is there really a crossover between clean comedy and the uncensored market? Seidel has seen it both ways, and understands it doesn’t have to be conflicting. “I think that those people that specifically need to have clean comedy don’t go watch local comedy.”
Something that all uncensored comics learn—sometimes the hard way—is what Stephenson points out: Uncensored comedy needs real substance. “Blue comedy”, in the style of Andrew Dice Clay for example, is often purposefully crass, rude and abrasive, and doesn’t seem to have a footing here even within some of the more loose crowds. Some comics hit the scene and try to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy, but they don’t tend to last long. Merlot remembers that when she first started out there was a comic who did some pretty intimate jokes about his sex life with his wife. This comic’s wife was always in the audience and usually the only one cheering him on due to some of the more graphic descriptions in the set. “If you have a really funny premise, I can understand saying stuff like that, but if that is all you have, it doesn’t really work,” says Merlot as she laughs.
Just as venues change, popular styles in comedy will also have shifts. “There’s been a big surge of the awkward comic,” Seidel says. Awkward, nerdy comedy is on the rise, just as the whole industry is making a shift to include geek culture and fandom. There really is a style out there for everyone, and material that suits all interests. The execution of any given style is an art form, are not everyone can travel off the beaten path. Some comedians who stick with one type of material and never learn how to tell different types of jokes seem to be the doomed entertainers that can disappear overnight.
With new changes in comedy, the amount of opportunity for starting out has grown with the demand for new comedians hitting the stage. “The amount of open mics has been nice,” says Stephenson. “I think that when there’s a need for something, and you’re not getting enough of it, [other comedians] go out and start these new shows.” It’s true that sometimes they dissolve, but other times they stick around and do pretty well.
Part of the problem, as Seidel sees it, is that “they get whoever is available for a show. If you invest into comedy, you’re going to want the better comics.” Merlot sees the other side of the issue as well. “It’s hard when you put up comics that aren’t ready,” she says. “It sometimes turns the owners against comedy.” It kind of becomes this double edged sword—you’ve got more shows and more comics but because there are so many of both, a lot of these new venues or monthly shows will just take anybody who is interested.
Seidel believes this is an unforeseen low point in the emergence of new talent. “There are people who promote comedy shows that get people to come to a comedy show,” he says. “Then there are people that will get the barrel scrapings of an open mic and say ‘hey, do you want to be on a show’ because, really anybody can put on a show. That’s different, because people are just getting their family to come out.” It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a high quality comedy show, and one that is just starting out and may not go anywhere. Seidel mentions that this is the symptom of the increasing presence of social media. “These days, anybody can build a fan page and take a picture of themselves at an open mic and suddenly they are a comedian,” he says. “Anybody can say, ‘I’m a comic’, and they’ve done two open mics”
Merlot agrees that social media has changed the game, but has seen this happening since the Myspace days. “That’s really frustrating because comedy is really an art, and now that you have social media, anybody can take advantage of the art, just like they can with photographers and painters,” she says. “It’s just so saturated now.” There is a silver lining, however. With more venues and more comics to fill them, there are even more stages to perform on. Stephenson says, “It gives people that want to get up the opportunity to just get up onstage.”
Over the last decade, there has been a consistency in some of the available competitions and festivals. The Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, which has been running strong with Keith Stubbs organizing it since 2001. However, the show is now sometimes sporadic, and may not always be hosted in Utah. There was also the Salt Lake Comedy Festival. Presently, even more competitions—typically more focused and hosted by a single venue—are popping up, like those at both Wiseguys and the new Club 50 West.
The newest edition in festivals is Stephenson’s Comedy Carnivale, which he started with Toy Soup’s Andrew Jensen. The Carnivale provides several days’ worth of diverse comedy and has gotten some surprising national attention. Matt Knudsen came out for the inaugural year, and he submitted to the festival with his Conan tape. “It’s gotten more traction than we’ve anticipated, so it’s been a lot more work than we ever thought,” says Stephenson. This year the Carnivale is taking a hiatus in order to secure the proper permits to bring it back again next year—bigger and better than ever.
Controversy, Charity, and the Future
Though, there have been some well-publicized rifts between different factions in the Utah comedy scene, there are those that seek to bridge the gap. In reality, there may be some back-and-forth bickering at times, but the comics do form a fairly close-knit community. Realistically, any entertainment scene is not without controversy and scandal. Merlot, Stephenson and Seidel all share memories of the biggest scandal within the last ten years. A certain comedian, who will not be named here (but members of the comedy community who remember will gladly share), was arrested in a situation where he was caught with some underage pornographic images. Merlot tells the tale: “The vice squad came to my roast because he was supposed to be there and they were going to arrest him.” This happened a few times, as he was almost arrested again at another venue. Thinking this was the end to an unfortunate comedy career, it was shocking when this individual then popped back up on the radar about five years later, this time impersonating a British Comic using a fake name. After being exposed a second time, he then came back as a photographer that later got busted for stealing photos from online content belonging to other artists. This rocked the comedy community and they rallied to combat the scandal. In this case, wrongdoing and fraud were important to bring to light so that other comedians and venues would not be taken advantage of. This isn’t abnormal when you see the comedy community at large in action as they will band together to combat injustice, sexism, and fight the ‘good fight’.
Comedians do understand that there is strength in numbers, and that the opportunity that their platform provides can do some occasional good for others. In years past, Travis Tate has raised money for the Ronald McDonald house. Seidel has held a very well-publicized and attended Comedy Cares event at Wiseguys for the last seven years around Christmastime. “I have a public voice—might as well use it for more than dick jokes,” he says. Merlot recently did a charity event earlier this year called “Save Forrest” for a member of the podcasting community who had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Steve McInelly ran two shows, which he started with his wife Carla, each December from 2009-2013 to raise money for the Utah Food Bank. “We did two shows for the Utah food bank that usually brought in about $500 each time and 1,000 lbs of food.” He also did a fundraiser and charity show for a young lady in the Kearns community that needed money for a surgery in which he raised about $250 and the venue, Club DJ’s, matched it to make $500.
The Utah comedy scene is currently thriving all around—as long as you know where to look. Finding shows is as simple as reaching out on Facebook or Twitter. Social Media has been a great platform to publicize and promote shows and venues, as well as get a glimpse at active comedians’ working thoughts and raw material. A handful of the current venues to check out variety shows, open mic nights and showcases featuring a mix of local and national comics are: Mo’s Diner, Wiseguys Comedy Club, Sandy Station, Club 50 West, The Loft in Ogden and the Covey Center for the Performing arts in Provo. However, it is just as easy to catch various bar shows and other venues happening all the time. You can see local comedy at a coffee shop, diner or college campus near you! Open mic nights are happening between 3–5 nights a week, with more opportunities opening up frequently for those who want to give stand-up comedy a shot. And remember, what makes comedy great in Utah are those who support it, so get out there and bring a friend to see for some of the best entertainers this wonderful state has to offer.
For more information on standup comedy in Utah, check out the other pieces in this series!