Forget Seattle. Riggs thinks Tacoma can become one of the region’s hottest destinations for comedy.
Riggs is the stage name for Aaron Flett, a six-year veteran of the local standup scene who last fall opened Tacoma Comedy Club with his business partner, fellow comic Adam Norwest.
They set up shop at 445 Tacoma Ave. S. in what was previously the showroom for Malarkey’s Pool & Brew. They gave the 110-seat room a slick makeover with muted colors, a new stage and striking black-and-white portraits of George Burns, Bernie Mac and other comedy legends. When the doors opened in October, it instantly doubled the number of comedy clubs in Tacoma.
“For us, there was a huge void for comedy in Tacoma,” said Flett, 37. “But there’s a want and a need here, and there’s a lot of pride in Tacoma. Even in comedy, it’s kind of an ‘us against them’ mentality. We don’t need you guys (in Seattle). We can do it ourselves.”
This time last year, the only nightclub dedicated exclusively to comedy was Comedy Underground, located at 100 S. Ninth St. underneath country bar Big Whisky Saloon. With a lone venue to play here, many of the hottest comics on the road would skip Grit City en route to higher-profile gigs at Seattle’s Comedy Underground and Bellevue’s Parlor Comedy Club.
Jon Tartaglia, co-owner of Tacoma’s Comedy Underground, said the competition from Tacoma Comedy Club is really just drawing attention to Tacoma as a comedy destination. “When you have one venue doing something, sometimes you think it’s nice because you have a monopoly. But a lot of times you’re not maximizing the full potential of the market. And we welcome that.”
Flett and Norwest have joined the handful of local promoters that started attracting bigger names and injecting new life into a once stagnant scene. Since October, Tacoma Comedy Club has booked the likes of Collin Moulton, Marc Price (aka Skippy from “Family Ties”) and Bothell native Kyle Cease (“10 Things I Hate About You” and “Not Another Teen Movie”), who will headline Feb. 17-19.
“There’re a lot of comics that don’t get to come to Tacoma because the other venues that we have here aren’t really vested in the comedy itself and they don’t pay enough to bring in national acts,” Flett said. “That was one of our things. If we treat the comedians better, we’ll get better comedians.”
Another player helping to revitalize the local comedy scene is Lacey’s Nate Jackson, who won the prestigious Bay Area Black Comedy Competition last April. (Past winners include Jamie Foxx, Katt Williams and Nick Cannon.)
Since then he’s parlayed his success into one of Tacoma’s hottest weekly comedy events, the Thursday night Super Funny Comedy Show at Varsity Grill, 1114 Broadway. Since June, his headliners have included some of the brightest names in urban comedy, the likes of “Showtime at the Apollo” host Terry Hodges, Anthony “Scruncho” McKinley (of “How High Fame”) and T.K. Kirkland.
In November, he put on a big showcase, featuring rising stars Tony Roberts, Vincent Oshana and Cocoa Brown, at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater.
Jackson sees part of his role to be introducing locals to some of the best comics they’ve been missing.
“Up here people don’t know who the comics are that I’m bringing,” Jackson said. “Usually we’re so isolated that all we know is what the media pushes nationally. So we’re like, ‘Oh, Dave Chappelle. Oh, Mike Epps. Oh, Katt Williams. Oh, Kevin Hart.’ But now ... people are actually becoming connoisseurs of their own brand of comedy.”
But perhaps the biggest impact Tacoma’s newest venues and comedy nights could have is on homegrown talent. Local insiders expect a pair of new open-mike nights to help a new generation of local comics develop into tomorrow’s headliners.
Tacoma Comedy Club’s open-mike night is on Wednesday. Tacoma’s Comedy Underground recently re-launched its on Thursday.
Kris Brannon – perhaps best known for showing up at public events as the “Save Our Sonics” guy – runs the latter. And he remembers when he got started, more than a decade ago, there was nowhere in town to polish his skills.
“I went to an open mike at a place called Baldy’s Roadhouse in Milton,” he said. “Now it’s a day care center.
“Now, I think there’s a lot more opportunity for somebody,” he said. “If they wanted to start out, they could do comedy pretty much any night of the week and almost not have to leave the county. (A decade ago) usually you ended up having to go do King County and Seattle a lot. Or sometimes you would just go to a bar and say, ‘Hey, can I do some time?’ You would do guerrilla shows and stuff.”
More open mikes makes for stronger local comics.
“I can tell you everything you need to know in the next two minutes, tops,” Flett said in offering advice to new comics.
“Number one is get onstage as much as you can, anywhere you can. That’s the most important thing. Number 2, be original. Number 3, get onstage as much as possible. Everything else you learn trial and error, baptism by fire and networking.”
“It definitely fosters the local comedy scene and allows people to come out and do comedy when they wouldn’t normally be able to be given a chance,” said Tartaglia, co-owner of Comedy Underground. “And we have a lot of (experienced) guys, like we get Ty Barnett coming through there all the time on Thursday nights to do sets because they want to try out new material.”
“We definitely have a comedy scene here,” said Ralph Porter, a local standup vet known for hosting Ha Ha Tuesday at Jazzbones. “As far as open mikes and stuff like that, the more of those the better for the newer comics, and even comics that have experience. I still like to go into those types of venues and actually perform for open mikes just because it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you movin’.”
Sure, some of the newbies’ material can be painful to watch. But that can be half the fun. “It’s a surprise gift,” Flett said. “You don’t know if you’re gonna get four really crappy comics and a good one or four really goods one and a crappy one.
“You’re gonna get a crappy one. I’m guaranteein’ that right now,” he added, laughing. “You’re gonna get some crap, but even that’s almost fun.”