Southeast Michigan's working class of comedy
When Northville-born comic Harry Moroz discovered he might be on to something with his stand-up routine, he was on stage making out with his arm. In the darkened room, beyond the impenetrable white glare of the stage lights, people were laughing.
"It was the first time I had successfully found where strange and funny meet," said Moroz, who decided a few years back in his college dorm room while watching Patton Oswalt's 'No Reason to Complain' to try his hand at stand-up comedy.
"My friends were very supportive," he said, "It took me a year to get up on stage. When I started out, I was inviting a lot of my friends to come watch. They did, being good friends." When asked what the turning point was from being a guy telling jokes with friends to performing a full-fledged comedy routine on stage, Moroz pointed out the more appropriate question might be when did his friends start supporting him with a 'Like' to jokes on Facebook instead of filling chairs at an open mic.
"I took a comedy class to force myself to a deadline. Plus, the cheapskate in me knew if I shelled out money for a class I was sure to complete it." It didn't hurt when she realized "comedy clubs don't allow kids."
It takes a good deal of persistence and a thick skin to get into stand-up comedy and to stay with it, turning up week after week to perform five minutes at a time at an open mic night before ever thinking about telling jokes on stage for money. Dearborn comedian Matt McClowry performed at open mic for about a year and a half before he bagged a comedy job that paid.
"Not counting the time a guy threw a dollar at me while onstage," added McClowry.
Stand-up is singular as a performing art. In many ways it can be sharp, satirical and piercing in that classic Shakespearean court jester kind of way: being the only person in the room who gets to hold a mirror to society and say what everybody else is thinking. But it has to be funny first.
"Most of my comedy is somewhat observational," said McClowry. "I wish I could cull more material from my personal life, but that would require having more of one."
"Even though I do sit and write, the premise has to come to me first and then I'll run it by a comic friend." McClowry added, "But a joke doesn't exist until it's told on stage."
As a stand-up comedian, you have to be commanding, friendly and funny as you try to illicit laughter out of a heterogeneous group of total strangers from the stage. Somewhere you have to find common ground. Or be clever and determined enough to win people to your world view and joke around with them there.
"One of the more recent times I felt I had discovered my comedic voice on stage," said Germaine Gebhard. "I had committed myself to a set of very opinionated political jokes and risking alienating an unknown percentage of the audience."
"But it was authentic and I went for it. It got a strong reaction, which was mostly positive and very satisfying. To thine own self be true."
Comedians have to be great observers of people and students of human nature. You sink as often as you swim but the dedicated comedians keep on coming back.
"I do comedy for the love of performing," said Michigan comedian Darnell Anderson. "If you don't do it for that," Anderson jokes, "I hope you get a kick out of poverty."
Like many comics, Anderson has involved himself in other types of performance and entertaining while pursuing his stand-up career. "I've done acting, singing, improv... basically, I'm trying to make sure I am never able to afford a house."
Anderson tries to draw inspiration from these other performance arts for his routines. "I learned that from Dave Chappelle and Michael Jackson who are respected innovators in their craft.
"Dave studied Mort Sahl, the genius voice actor behind Looney Tunes and Michael Jackson's dance moves were influenced by the French mime Marcel Marceau."
Harry Moroz has an even more eclectic performance history. He's played bluegrass mandolin, rode unicycles in parades, put out two rap albums, performs magic and works with an improv troupe on the side. But stand-up is his focus.
"I've given up almost all my former leisure activities to make room for the necessities: work, relationship time, and convincing myself puns can be funny."
Detroit comedian Ricarlo Flanigan hosts a weekly podcast and has produced his own album of original rap music, much of it infused with humor. Flanigan found comedy by a chance combination of location and circumstance. He came to Ann Arbor without much of a connection to the city, found the local comedy club (the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase) and started taking classes and getting up on stage for open mic.
It's been working out well for Flanigan who last year made it to the finals at the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival in Atlanta.
"I devote pretty much all my time now to stand-up," said Flanigan. "Doing comedy has caused me to look at every situation as an opportunity to think of a good bit or a joke to tell."
"A lot of my material," laughed Flanigan. "Comes from the fact that I don't like people too much." He looks to comedians who tackle real issues in their routines for inspiration.
"People like Bill Burr, George Carlin and Patrice O'Neal," said Flanigan.
Southeast Michigan's stand-up comedy scene is diverse and vibrant. At the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, open mic nights are made equal parts local veterans and fresh faces. Names are literally drawn out of a hat to accommodate the large number of comedians who are working to get time on stage.
Regular stand-up audiences are often niche, but not for want of talent in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area.
"I like the crowds in Ann Arbor," said Gebhard, "because they represent all ages, ethnicities, education levels and economic backgrounds. It's a good gauge of how widely represented your humor is. You can feel the respect for the art of stand-up."
If you want to learn more, check out the website of Harry Moroz and videos of Ricarlo Flanigan, Germaine Gebhard, Matt McClowry and Darnell Anderson (apologies to Mr. Anderson that the only video I could find is two years old). Also give a listen to Ricarlo Flanigan's podcast which frequently features comedians from the area.
Ryan Levin is a University of Michigan Screen Arts and Cultures graduate and a film and comedy blogger. He currently moonlights as a waiter and bartender at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.