I am proud to be a comedian from the Metro Detroit area. We’ve always had a strong voice. Michigan is the birthplace of the three person comedy show. Mark Ridley, owner of the Comedy Castle invented that format thirty years ago, and it’s become the structure of comedy clubs worldwide.
Comedy clubs are unfortunately in short supply these days. When I started 15 years ago, in Michigan alone there was Chaplin’s, the Comedy Castle, Joey’s Dearborn, Joey’s Livonia, Cool Jerks, Pesto’s, Split a Gut, Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, Connxtions, Gary Fields, and Dr. Grins. Now? The Castle, the Showcase, Grins, the reopened Cool Jerks and a new room called Punchline are all that’s left.
But Mike, the title article says that Detroit comedy has never been better. How so?
I’ll tell you, Mr. Narrative Device that’s helping me get to the meat of this article. Showcases. There are so many showcase rooms run by comedians now. It’s insane! If alternative comedy is defined as comedy that happens in a space that’s an alternative to a comedy club, this is it. And it’s good. Really good! Most of the bigger name comedians in LA regularly play the clubs there, but the stars of tomorrow are sweating away upstairs in Chinese restaurants or in the back of a juice bar.
On December 19th, 2004 I put together a comedy show that had Jesse Popp, Dave Merheje, Mike Stanley, Dave Landau, Brent Sullivan, Mike Kosta, Vince Averill and more. All of the guys I mentioned have gone on to do incredibly great things. I would put money on the fact that many of the people I hope to highlight will do the same.
Before I moved to LA, my buddy Mike Lebovitz, one of the co-founders of the now coast to coast Comedians You Should Know, came to Michigan and was surprised at how few comedian run rooms we had. Darnell Anderson had something in Ypsilanti and Lauren Uchalik had the Painted Lady in Hamtramck. Both those shows were fun, but the audiences, for the most part, were the other comedians on the bill. Now, these comedian run shows have a following! They’re generating fans! And because the performers aren’t so worried about performing in a club for money, they’re not generating easily digestible material and instead creating something new and unique. And that’s fun to watch.
I’m hoping to highlight some of these artists regularly. I apologize that these first five are just white males. I was initially disappointed when I moved back that the entire scene was just white males, but I’ve been happy to discover there are more than that here. Yeah, it’s not the rich diversity of shows I sought out in LA like the amazing Micky’s in West Hollywood where many times I was the ONLY straight white male on the show, or the variety show circus of Cobra Juice, but it’s diversifying and that makes me happy. So please excuse the fact that these are four bearded and one clean shaved white guy. I will do better next update. I promise.
In no particular order…
Bart Dangus runs a show called Prankis every Monday night at LJ’s Bar downtown next to Slo’s Barbecue. Prankis is a show where heckling isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. The Chewbacca to Bart’s Han Solo is sound guy Zech. It’s kind of like if Chewbacca looked like Germs-era Pat Smear and Han Solo looked like…well…Chewbacca. Zech has the “god mic” and flavors every set. Bart has a wonderful and stupid (and I mean that as the highest compliment) jazz joke that I love. His material ranges from revealing to cleverly silly. He also hosts the Something O’er the Hill podcast. So check that out too.
Alex Bozinovic was a pleasant surprise. I hate to admit, but I judged a book by its cover. I met him briefly at Cellarman’s, a comedy room he co-runs in Hazel Park, and he booked me there. Most of our interaction had been online and I didn’t put it together who he was when we talked the other night at Kelly’s Bar in Hamtramck. When he hit the stage, I was dismissive at first because part of me feels like I’ve gotten the point of view of every young bearded straight white guy I needed. That’s not Alex. Not by a long shot. I was totally and completely wrong. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. I don’t even know if it is a surprise or if it’s just a matter of me being a judgy judge. But I will say, the next day I sent him a message and told him that I thought he wasn’t just doing funny comedy, but he’s also doing important comedy. He does a bit about relationships and video games, that if I try to describe, will sound hacky, but it’s the furthest thing from hack. It’s great! Like it’s the bit that’s going to elevate him closer to being a household name great.
Brett Mercer is fucking delightful. He reminds me on one of my favorite comedians and dearest friends, Jeff Scheen, in that Brett is such and original he’s not even doing premises that other people are touching. Brett’s breakdown of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” hits so many jokes, and so many different kinds of jokes. The word nerd in me loves the fact that he points out that at the end the narrator could have kept the same syllable count and said “at the baseball game”, but they’re so dismissive of the sport that they say “at the old ball game”. It literally breaks down that song syllable by syllable. Mercer is a guy who, even though he’s relatively new at this, takes the stage with the confidence of a seasoned pro. He’s like a non-food obsessed Jim Gaffigan the way he breaks down every topic he touches to a subatomic level. He also cohosts the Big Time Garbage podcast.
Jason Brent is surreal and dark. I was always in awe of my friend Brent Sullivan who could shift the pace of an audience to fit his liking. Jason does the same thing. His act is so deliberate and unforgiving. It’s really fun to watch. I feel like he’s one of those guys that I could really over analyze about why it works so much for me. I won’t. But I will say, don’t dismiss some of his material as just shocking. Look at the delivery. There’s not so much an ambivalence about the shocking nature of it as much as there’s a lack of comprehension. His conversation with the barista is a great example of that. I really like it. Jason’s act is musical in the way that it’s not just about the notes that are being played, it’s how they’re being played. And he plays those comedy notes like a virtuoso.
Kenneth Witzgall is timeless. I seriously can’t think of any other way to describe him. He’s got a great voice, both literally and as in his point of view. I ran into him at a party when I first moved back and thought he had an interesting way of taking a room. I remember then, looking forward to seeing how he took a stage. I saw it earlier this week and really enjoyed it. When I write “timeless” what I mean is that he looks just as in place on stage now as he could have in an era of modern comedy. There’s something both classic and contemporary about him. There’s also something completely Detroit about him. He looks and sounds the same way in person I always imagined Detroit rock DJs like Ken Calvert looked and sounded. The actor in me naturally falls into “Central Casting” mode. Kenneth Witzgall is the kind of guy you cast when you need a scene stealing eccentric neighbor or coworker. He’s an indomitable presence!
After twenty five years of business, Chaplin’s Comedy Club closed its doors for good. Chaplin’s is allegedly the place where Jeff Foxworthy riffed on stage and discovered his entire “you might be a redneck” routine. It’s been bothering me that I’m the last person to headline Chaplin’s Comedy Club.
In the year leading up to becoming a comedian I experienced live comedy three times. The entire main stage cast at Second City Detroit horribly embarrassed me by improvising a musical number about how horrible it would be to be on a date with me. Maybe that’s why I have a love/hate relationship with improve to this day! At that moment of sitting in the front row, I vowed that if I were ever on stage I would never humiliate someone like I was humiliated. Well…so much for that!