Inside the Huntington Comedy Scene

Comedian+Nate+Cesco+performs+at+Black+Sheep+Burrito+and+Brews+for+Comedy+Open+Mic+night.

Kyle Mcallister

Comedian Nate Cesco performs at Black Sheep Burrito and Brews for Comedy Open Mic night.

 

Audiences to stand-up comedy shows in Huntington had started to grow sparse in 2012.

The Funny Bone in Pullman Square had closed the year before and comedians were recycling the same bits to the same audiences to the point of turning crowds away. The scene needed a change if it wanted to grow. In fall 2012, the biweekly comedy open mics at Black Sheep Burrito and Brews began.

“This town is a music town,” comedian Ian Nolte said. “For the size of this city, there’s a monstrous music scene. It’s been growing for as long as I’ve been aware. There was zero of that for comedy. No one I knew even liked stand up comedy. They were music fans. No young person went to the Funny Bone because it was unaffordable. There was no appetite for comedy and I wanted a regular open mic so bad.”

In 2012, Nolte was approached by James Chase, who suggested Black Sheep Burrito and Brews as a location for a new open mic night because of the restaurant’s proximity to campus drawing a younger demographic and an already established connection with the music scene.

“James Chase was right. He filled Black Sheep up with people and it was a great show,” Nolte said. “We came back, did the next one and filled it up again. Everyone did the same five minute routines and that killed it. At some point Josh McDonald and I started helping James out with leading it.”

One of the first things Nolte did as one of the show runners was suggest comedians bring new material to the show.

“The idea of keeping comedians writing is important in this area because there’s not a lot of comedy and you don’t want people to get stagnant,” comedian Nate Cesco said. “The comedians here do become really writing-driven comedians. Having the two weeks to prepare helps you get ready.”

“You walk into Black Sheep now and there is a room full of people who came to see comedy,” Nolte said. “I’m not saying they are the easiest group to get over in front of, but they’ll listen to you and laugh if you’re being funny. That was not the case when the show started. There were many nights I would perform to people sitting with their back to me eating dinner.”

“One of my favorite things about the open mic is watching new comics try it and figure things out.””

— Ian Nolte

Black Sheep’s open mic is different than others because of its biweekly schedule that draws a consistent crowd of people who are there for the comedy and understand the material is untested.

“It’s different from other open mic nights for the fact that it is biweekly,” Cesco said. “It draws a crowd consistently for that. People who are not only there to watch comedy, but they know its untested comedy, like it’s the first time the stuff has been onstage. “

“I’m very proud of that,” Nolte said. “The idea that we’ve built this from scratch. Whenever I walk in there on a Wednesday night and it’s packed and its comedy fans and new comics are killing, I feel a tremendous sense of pride.”

Despite the audience’s familiarity with the regular performers, both Cesco and Nolte encourage new comics to give comedy a shot.

“The people who run it now; me, Ian Nolte, Cody Lambert, Rebecca Fitzgerald and Angie Davis like to keep the mentality like, ‘I know I got comments and support and people saying they liked this,’ so that’s what we want to do now that we run the show is make a supportive environment for people starting off because it does take a while to get a grasp on things,” Cesco said.

“One of my favorite things about the open mic is watching new comics try it and figure things out,” Nolte said. “The first time I saw Nate Cesco, he was like a baby kid up there, and he had good jokes and he kept coming back. It was like a magic transformation where he found the attitude that is Nate with a microphone.  It’s not even something you can articulate, it’s an amount of confidence and a knowledge of tone, delivery and style and an ability to match those things is when you start to get strong.”

Recently Cesco and Lambert have begun booking shows at the Ale House. The first show will be spring 2015, with headliner Robbie Sherrard, featured comedian Davis and host Cesco.

“That was a cool experience because we never organized a show like that before,” Cesco said. “Black Sheep, in a way, runs itself now, like we promote it, but its such a group effort it doesn’t seem like work. We put on this show. We had to do everything. Make the flyers, Facebook events, we built a stage the day of the show and made sure the money was there.  It was a long super-fun process and we sold out the room. It’s one thing to put on a showcase and it’s all local comedians, but getting credits and working with outside comedians to show them Huntington is a viable place to do comedy is our goal.”

“The comedy community right now is hot,” Nolte said. “The Black Sheep show is really strong. The most recent incarnation of it where it’s been a lot of younger comics have been really good. A lot of things are going on regionally that weren’t happening before.  Nate Cesco is setting up shows and he knows exactly how to do it. Lee Hale in Charleston is doing the same thing.”

“I understand the size of the area; we can’t sustain a comedy club,” Cesco said. “There aren’t enough people going out for specifically comedy. So I understand if that can’t last, but it creates a cool situation for the Huntington comedy scene that makes it feel like a music scene because we’re tied into other venues. It’s almost going out to people. It isn’t contained by a club.”

After the show in the spring, the next Comedy at the Ale House show will feature Fitzgerald and comedians Andy Frampton and Josh McDonald, a former Huntington citizen, who now lives in New York City.

Nathan Thomas can be contacted at [email protected]