Written by Henry Culvyhouse.
It’s been almost seven years since the Huntington Funny Bone closed its doors. At the time, this closure was viewed as an almost insurmountable obstacle for local comedians. However, it appears that the comedy scene is a long way from the chaos that erupted in the city after the closure of the ‘Bone.
Audiences hungry for local comedy can find open mic nights held locally on alternating Wednesdays at Black Sheep Burritos and Brews and at the Press Club on Fourth Avenue. Black Sheep is moving from its current location on the corner of Hal Green and Third Avenue to Pullman Square, where it will literally be across the street from the location of the former Funny Bone. With the new location hopefully new (and larger) crowds will come.
The Fall of The Funny Bone
Cody Lambert, a bearded young comic from Lincoln County, West Virginia, got his start at the Funny Bone in 2009-2010 while a freshman at Marshall University.
Those Funny Bone days, Lambert recalled, didn’t give locals nearly as much performance time as today’s open mics.
“We only had an open mic there about once a month, and if you did well you could talk to management about getting a showcase slot,” Lambert said. “The idea was to perfect a good five minute set. That way, you could fill in if a comedian ever got caught up in traffic or something.”
Naming a variety of locals who appeared at the club, Lambert said area comedians hung out and traded jokes. The difference between then and now was that they had a specific location to anchor the scene.
“There were different classes of comics that filtered through, like you have classes at a school,” he said. “The Funny Bone crowd, for the most part, isn’t the same as the open mic crowd we have today. But there was a different vibe when you had a club for the scene to circle around.”
When the Funny Bone shuttered its doors, camaraderie quickly devolved into infighting, Lambert said. “I’m not going to be dramatic and say it was like the fall of Rome, but there definitely was a power vacuum,” Lambert said. “Everyone was trying to start a show, but nothing really took hold, either because they couldn’t find the crowd or it was crazy people overselling themselves.”
Not that the Funny Bone was the only game in the area, said Eric Crusan, a comedian who started right at the tail end of the Funny Bone. The Whiskey River, a bar in the now defunct Grandview Inn in South Point, Ohio, periodically held a comedy showcase then too.
“I can’t tell you how many of those shows I did black-out drunk,” Crusan said. “I don’t remember anything at all. I mean, I’d wake up and I knew I got paid because I had money in my pocket. There wasn’t hardly anyone in the bar besides other comics.”
In the absence of the Funny Bone, a show called “Huntington Live” popped up in the back of a Fourth Avenue bar, while another show runner tried infusing stand-up with a taco bar.
“I mean, here was a guy trying to sell tacos at an open mic,” Crusan said. “It didn’t make any sense at all.”
Ian Nolte, a show runner of the Black Sheep open mics, started doing comedy during this time. A long-time patron of the Funny Bone, it never occurred to Nolte that he could just “do comedy.”
“I wanted to do an open mic at the Funny Bone, but it closed,” Nolte said. “I did a few shows at Huntington Live, and it was a good time, but the crowd size dwindled. It was more of an open mic people paid to see.”
“But other shows, were frankly weird and terrible. I remember one show, we went there and literally nobody at the bar knew we were even performing a show,” Nolte added.
The issue, Nolte pointed out, was a lot of comics were still pretty inexperienced which doesn’t typically draw too many people.
Then there was the issue of freshness, noted local stand-up Adam Culver. A schoolteacher by day, Culver—like Crusan and Lambert—got his first taste of the stage at the Funny Bone.
“We just weren’t writing new material,” Culver said. “And that was a problem, because after somebody saw a set, and they came back again, they’d hear the exact same set. It got so bad, we went to an open mic one night and did each other’s sets.”
Audiences came out less and less until comics were telling jokes to empty seats. The comedy scene, in Huntington, appeared to be heading towards its demise.
Why not give it away?
Ask any standup in town about comedy’s turn around, and the name James Chase is bound to come up. Even for comics who never knew him, Chase has become synonymous with the comeback of standup in Huntington.
An eccentric, bearded hippy type, Chase has traveled around the American South performing comedy and playing music for years. As Crusan described him, Chase is a “someone who could play guitar in the woods all day and be happy.”
When Chase wound up in Huntington in late 2011, he found the scene in disarray.
“Chase got his start in comedy in Florida,” Nolte said. “So when he came to town, he saw there were enough comics for an open mic. So he said, ‘why charge the audience?’”
Cutting his teeth in the Gainesville, Florida, scene, Chase said he didn’t “do anything new” when he came to Huntington. Nor was it his first time helping set up an open mic. He’d already planted the seeds for one in Morgantown, the closest city he has to a hometown.
“I hear that one is still going, but to my understanding, the Huntington open mics are the strongest in the state,” Chase said. “I just took what I learned in Gainesville and introduced that to Morgantown, then to Huntington.”
Free shows weren’t the only secret to the Florida formula—fresh, new material was just as important. That, Nolte said, would launch the scene into popularity.
“If an audience hears your set, then comes back two weeks later and hears the same exact set, then they’ll hate you,” Nolte said. “So Chase pushed to have a workshop precede the shows and to have every comedian come up with totally new material.”
“By turning it into a writing lab, people could try new things with the audience and the audience didn’t have to hear the same joke every two weeks. After comedians got used to it, people started to grow,” Nolte added.
In early 2012, Chase struck a deal with Black Sheep management to fill the Wednesday night slot twice a month.
Culver performed the first few shows before taking a three-year break due to personal reasons. However, he recalled “all the excitement” in the comedy community leading up to the first show.
“There was a lot of excitement and nervousness, because we didn’t know how it would be received,” Culver said. “That location used to be the Calamity Café, an open mic spot years ago, so some of that nervousness came from returning to that same spot.”
Those early shows weren’t the best, Lambert said.
“Really, it was very comedian driven at first. There wasn’t a huge demand to see locals do comedy, so the open mic was mainly supported by people who wanted to do comedy,” Lambert recalled.
Comedy needs an audience to be successful. A room packed with patrons can be a start, but when the patrons don’t know there’s a comedy show going on, it quickly devolves into a comedian screaming over dinner conversations.
“We were literally yelling into a microphone overtop of a restaurant full of people,” Nolte recalled. “These people weren’t there for comedy; maybe one or two showed up for it, but the rest didn’t. It was rough.”
Then there were nights where nobody came at all. At times, the show found itself teetering on the brink of collapse, Nolte observed. “There was constant negotiation with management to keep the open mic going. We’d have to take hiatuses for a few months and come back with the show,” Nolte said.
In the five years since Rebecca Fitzgerald performed her Black Sheep set, a lot has changed. Fitzgerald, a Nitro native, chose Marshall University for her undergrad in part because it was in the same town as the Funny Bone. Unfortunately, after she had made that decision, the club closed.
However, a random conversation with a comedian at a bookstore led her to the Black Sheep. After sitting through a show or two, Fitzgerald signed up, becoming the scene’s first regularly performing female comedian.
“It was usually just me and seven other guys doing seven minutes of material at a time,” she said. “Sometimes, an odd woman from Charleston would come in and do a set, but for the longest time, I was the only one.”
After a couple of years, the demographics shifted. Comics, in the early days, skewed a bit older—from mid-20s to mid-40s. As the popularity grew, more college-aged folks took to the stage, Fitzgerald said.
“I’d say we started seeing a shift in 2014 where more younger people started getting involved, more women, more minorities, so it became more diverse,” she said. “It wasn’t too long after that, we developed the audience.”
By 2016, Fitzgerald said the show as in full-stride and the shows were drawing regular crowds. Part of that, according to Lambert, was a comedic zeitgeist taking the nation.
“I think today, the public in general is more comedy conscious,” he said. “There’s always a Netflix special coming out every week, then you have guys like Marc Maron making podcasts where important people like the president are appearing. I think people are getting introduced to it more and more.”
Barroom shows are also popping up more frequently, Nolte added. “These kind of open mics are booming, because they’re a way for people to start and develop,” Nolte said. “I visited Austin, Texas, over the summer and saw they were doing the exact same thing, just on a much larger scale. Instead of one night with 10 comics, they had 40 comics at one show, and that wasn’t the first show they did, or the last that night.”
Today, Huntington has two places for open mics—the Blacksheep shows falling roughly on the first and third Wednesday of the month, and a show at the Press Club on Fourth Avenue falling on the second and fourth Wednesday. While customarily comedy would take a summer break with the college, today it goes year round.
When Culver returned from his absence, he found a “well oiled machine” in the stand-up scene.
“It was crazy how much everybody had grown and how well the shows ran,” Culver said. “They had a system down for keeping it moving, and there wasn’t any hitch ups. A lot of people had experience at that point and knew what worked and what didn’t.”
It isn’t just the move in venue from across the street from the university to Pullman Square that has put the scene in transition. Huntington comedy has lost some of its powerhouse acts; Crusan now lives in Florida, Lambert in Chicago. Fitzgerald said new blood has stepped up to fill in the spot.
“I’ve seen a lot of ebbs and flows in comedy, there have been difficult times, but I think the show itself is bigger than just any one or two acts,” she said. “We’re tons more cohesive than those early days, because we realize we have to stick together if we want comedy to succeed in this town.”
Plus, the move to Pullman means actually getting a stage, Fitzgerald noted.
“We’ve just been standing up in restaurants and talking into a microphone,” she said. “Having that stage, that can make it feel more like a show. Plus, with an actual showroom, we can see who is there for burritos and who is there for laughs.”
With the present location of Black Sheep across from campus, the audiences will naturally skew towards a younger demographic. Culver said he thinks standup will have more exposure downtown.
“There’s going to be more eyeballs down there,” he said. “So we’ll be getting a better cross section of people who live in the city. I think we’re all excited for it, but we all have concerns. But it will be a new challenge.”
Crusan said he thinks for comedy to progress in Huntington, it “needs to do something.”
“I don’t know what it needs to do, but it needs something,” he said. “If it can bring in more road comics that would be a big help.”
Freshness, a key ingredient of the Huntington open mic formula, also has its downsides for comics, Crusan pointed out.
“It’s good to get people writing, but in order to get an act down and take it elsewhere, you need to have a set practiced over and over. The one thing about a club, it gives you that opportunity to get that set down,” Crusan said.
Local comics may have a difficult time connecting with professionals on the club circuits, but it isn’t entirely impossible, according to Nolte.
“People need to get in their cars and travel to the shows. You’re not going to make those connections here, but you can become a good writer here and take that act elsewhere.”
Whatever challenges the comedy scene currently faces, Fitzgerald said it is ultimately up to the comedians to make a good show.
“In terms of a ‘scene’ we’re still a baby, we’re still trying to figure things out,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we have a lot learning to do, but we’re in it together. We stuck it out and it’s become a staple now. With every change, there’s a gamble, but we have to keep taking risks to keep it going.”
MORE: Read local comedian Josh McDonald’s op-ed about comedy in Huntington HERE.