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Where are the laughs? Comedians say it’s a difficult market

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Sioux City stand up comedy

Sioux City-based stand up comedians, from left, John Olson, Britton Hacke and Drake Strong. Although optimistic for the future, they struggle to get people in the seats and hope for new comics to come forth and add to the local comedy scene.

Tim Hynds, The Weekender

There exists a peculiar paradox in the Sioux City comedy scene. In order to progress as performers or gauge the impact of new material, it is paramount that stand-up comics attend open mic nights and test their bits to crowds of people.

Therein lies the dilemma. Strictly comedy-focused open mics are few and far between, and crowd numbers are rarely ever consistent. So how can these fledgling comedians learn to grow when there isn’t a substantial or attentive crowd for them to feed off of? That’s the conflict Sioux City comedians are facing today.

Despite dwindling attendance and fading interest, there is still a dedicated group of comics that wish to keep the scene alive at all costs. This means showing up to the open mic night every Thursday at Marty’s Tap, promoting out-of-town comics scheduled to perform at local venues and occasionally throwing comedy events like the Siouxlebrity Roasts and the Cancer Sux Comedy Rox benefit organized by John Olson.

“There are comedy events that happen where a surprising amount of people show up, which is a really good deal, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way,” said Olson, who has experienced first-hand the good and not-so-good turnouts featuring local comedy. Before The Chesterfield closed in 2016, Olson would consistently organize an open mic for area comedians to test out material on a real stage for a few hours.

“You gotta remember I ran Comedy Night at The Chesterfield for more than five years,” Olson continued. “Don’t get me wrong, there were nights where it was fantastic! But also there were nights where we were performing to other comedians -- which is nobody’s fault.”

Having regularly performed stand-up for more than 10 years, Olson said there are many comics “working their tails off to go and be at that next level” but have yet to see the fruits of their labor. Perhaps Sioux City isn’t a live comedy town? “I have to believe it’s a comedy town,” said Olson. “The question is not so much ‘Is it a comedy town?’ I think the question is ‘What kind of comedy are they looking for?’”

Blue, black, anecdotal, insult, observational, satire, deadpan, cringe, improv, one liner. So much to choose from. Who is to say what kind of humor Sioux Cityans would latch onto the most. All Olson knows is that the scene is “nowhere near where it should be.”

THE ROARING ‘80s

“The thing about stand-ups is you can't really get good unless you're failing in front of a large number of people. That makes stand-up comedy unique: you need a tremendous amount of reserve within you to take the rejection from the audience, and without it, you can't do anything.” – David Steinberg

During the 1980s, Sioux City comedy was just getting started. And at the epicenter of that stand-up boom was a man by the name of Ken Muller. Comedian Garie Lewis credited Muller as “the first person to start bringing the comedy stand-up scene to Sioux City.”

Thanks to Muller, local comics had places to call home. Places like Kenny’s Komedy Korner -- located inside Donovan’s Reef, a bar attached to the old Imperial ‘400’ Motel -- offered comedians like Lewis a chance to share their jokes with a live audience.

In a 2009 Sioux City Journal article, Muller said of the comedy club, “We never had a clue of what we were doing. But then, neither did the acts. It was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.”

However, much like our current scene, comedy venues would often find new locations. It wasn’t uncommon for an event or locale to dissolve entirely after a year or so. When Donovan’s Reef closed in 1984, Kenny’s Komedy Korner transformed into The Monologue and was stationed inside the old Franklin School off Highway 75.

When The Monologue folded, the comedy club found solace in the most unlikely of places: a pizzeria. El Fredo Pizza’s raised stage in the back room of the establishment became the home of Pepperoni’s Comedy Club. El Fredo owner John Lennon told the Sioux City Journal in 2009 that adding a comedy club was a win-win situation.

“What it did for our business was bring a lot of notoriety to it and a lot of exposure to the smaller communities around Sioux City,” said Lennon. “It would draw people like a magnet from places like Storm Lake and Yankton. At the same time, it exposed our food to new customers.”

Eventually the Sioux City pizzeria lost its status as a comedy club. Meanwhile, others were eager to start their own comedy ventures. When Lewis returned to Sioux City in 2000, he was in charge of comedy nights at the now closed Fourth Street Brewery. “It ran about a year,” said Lewis. “That was called Jokers. I had a booker out of Omaha doing the booking on that. It was a comedy club with professional touring comics.”

Again, the pattern persisted. Eventually, Lewis found success at the Eagles Club, opening a monthly event called Last Friday Comedy. On the last Friday of every month, Lewis hired professional comics to perform their standup acts. Before the headliner began his or her set, Lewis allowed for amateurs to test their skills at an open mic. The first show attracted nearly 105 people.

“The next month I think there were 120 or 150 people that showed up,” said Lewis. “But month by month it tapered down.”

Numbers would continue to taper and fluctuate depending on the featured acts and time of year. Lewis even extended the comedy to two nights a month, one right after the other. Like it’s predecessors, Last Friday Comedy eventually disappeared. However, Lewis said “Last Friday might not have seen its last day.”

Since that initial stand-up comedy boom, only three area comics managed to break away from the local scene and make a living as touring comedians -- Garie Lewis, Jent Monk and Don Reese . Which means at one point the scene was prosperous enough to produce talent to grow and move on to bigger shows, bigger venues and maybe slightly bigger paychecks.

“Three comedians in the ’80s came out of this town and traveled nationwide and made national names for themselves,” said Lewis. “I think if you walked around and asked the people in this town they’d be hard pressed to name all three of us.”

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Sioux City stand up comedy

Sioux City-based stand up comedians, from left, John Olson, Britton Hacke and Drake Strong. Although optimistic for the future, they struggle to get people in the seats and hope for new comics to come forth and add to the local comedy scene.

HOPE FOR A REVIVAL

“Stand-up comedy is an art form and it dies unless you expand it.” – Sam Kinison

Almost every Thursday – unless he’s scheduled for a comedy show or his car won’t start – Skyler Bolks makes the nearly hour-and-a-half drive to Sioux City from his home of Sioux Falls to attend open mic night at Marty’s Tap. He’s done so for the past eight months.

Having only dabbled in stand-up for nearly a year-and-a-half, Bolks is dedicated to honing his craft, which is partly why he is so willing to make the weekly drive to an out-of-town open mic. “The extra time onstage,” he said, “is always really good for a comic. In some places, it’s really hard to get good stage time. We have a couple mics up in Sioux Falls, but having that extra night onstage is really a big difference maker.”

People like Bolks are what comedian Matt Hattorf said the scene really needs: new voices, new faces, new comics. “It could definitely use more fresh blood,” he said. “I know that everybody else is tired of seeing the same comics every week. I love seeing the guys but… it is what it is. I’m tired of my jokes.”

Hattorf jests, but there is probably some truth to that. Open mics are sometimes used to fine-tune bits, which means regular audiences might hear the same jokes over and over again. Olson compared the process to sports practice.

“Do people flock to the United Center to see the Bulls practice or do they go there to see them play?” he said. “What we have to do is continuously practice over and over and over again in order to be able to perform to the highest capabilities when you put on a show. Therefore the practice is necessary. We, as comedians, need an audience to give us a good read on what works and what doesn’t work.”

And one of the easiest ways to acquire new jokes is to find new comedians to bring into the scene – whether they’re in-town or otherwise. Miranda Vint recently began performing a standup routine for the past few months.

After being indirectly involved with the scene, she finally got a taste of what it’s like to be a comic. For her, it’s often cathartic. “They great thing about comedy is you have this open platform to discuss anything and it is all stuff that mostly happens in your life day-to-day,” said Vint. “It gives you a chance to take a lighter perspective on what’s occurring. It’s really great to talk about something that’s personal to yourself and see the other people in the audience relate to it, especially as a female comedian.”

The comedy scene is at a constant struggle. History has shown comedy has never been easy in Sioux City. Despite the difficulties, comics stick together and remain hopeful. With every empty chair, with every mistimed joke, with every setback, they’re determined to make it better. One joke at a time.

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Weekender reporter

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