It’s open mic night at the Loony Bin, the comedy club at 215 N. St. Francis in downtown Wichita.
Jessica Wasson, who goes by the stage name Jessica Kay, is up next. She pays close attention to the first three performers, applauding with encouragement when their jokes start to visibly stink. She laughs through the performance of the elderly gentleman up just before her – an open mic night first-timer who recites all his favorite PG-13 sex jokes.
The host for the evening, local comedy veteran Mr. Biggs, calls Jessica to the stage – and introduces her as “a very funny lady.”
It’s time to go. Time to turn it on. Time to tune out past performances when her own jokes started to visibly stink. Time to think about the shows that killed and focus on the minute or two of material she’s recently developed and desperately needs to try out on an audience.
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“Heyyyy my name’s Jessica Kay. What’s going on?” she says in her signature droll, sing-songy voice. “I work at the zoo. I also have bangs. They’re called sweat curtains because it gets hot and sweaty.”
“So I wear khaki on khaki on khaki at the zoo,” she continues. “My hair is kind of khaki colored. My skin. My belt. My boots. My boots are cool. So I look like a giant finger, but with personality because I have red glasses.”
They laugh again.
“Or like a...”
And we have to stop there, as Kay launches into a raunchy, R-rated joke that becomes even funnier because of her playful, girlish voice.
Kay is a graphic designer for the Sedgwick County Zoo by day. By night, she’s a budding comedian honing her craft on comedy-friendly Wichita stages, found mostly at bars, clubs and Wichita’s sole comedy venue, the Loony Bin.
She’s also an active organizer of a group of young comedians leading a resurgence of local standup in Wichita. The scene, say newer and more seasoned comedians working in Wichita, floundered mightily when The Loony Bin closed for 13 months starting in March 2013 as it moved from its home of 14 years at 21st and Woodlawn to its new location downtown (it’s also known as Live at 215). During that time, comedy stages were dark, and local comedians were mostly quiet – organizing a few standup shows at bars here and there. The reopening of the Loony Bin in April 2014 signaled a new season of Wichita standup and energized a group of fledglings to start taking their art more seriously.
Now, standup comedy shows are a regular occurrence in Wichita. The Loony Bin’s twice monthly open mic shows draw a mix of local notables and newbies (and a few stinkers), and bars like Kirby’s Beer Store, Barleycorns and theater Roxy’s Downtown are hosting frequent local comedy shows, almost all of them organized and produced by the performers. Other local spots that sometimes host comedy shows or open mic nights include R Coffee House, The Artichoke Sandwich Bar, 40 Plus Lounge, Daiquiri’s and The Shop in Derby.
“Over the last couple of years, there seems to be a group of them that come together to do their thing,” said Mr. Biggs, who now performs regionally and works at the Loony Bin. “Right now, there’s a lot of them, more than there has been in the history of when I’ve been involved in comedy. They’re all taking it very seriously, and I think a lot of them are very funny.”
The scene is made up of a group of around 15 to 20 regulars and an always-rotating cast of one-timers. But ask around for the names of Wichita’s most promising budding comedians, and the same ones will come up:
▪ Kay, a “Saturday Night Live” fan who announced to her friends after a night of over drinking that she’d be performing open mic standup the next night – and woke up the next morning terrified but committed.
▪ Tim Maggard, who works in a trucking warehouse and spends his evenings cracking dark jokes about dysfunction and addition.
▪ Daniel Pewewardy, a local librarian who has opened for Bobcat Goldthwait and Rob Schneider.
▪ Uncle Bam Gilmore, who has performed on the same bill as national comedian Hope Flood and who performs regionally alongside two other rising Wichita comedians – Deonde “Mr. 316” Crawford and Brandon Winn.
▪ Elijah Graves, the reigning champion of the Loony Bin’s annual “Funniest Person in Wichita” competition, whose abilities are revered by his local contemporaries.
▪ Dan the Man, new to the scene but said to be fiercely funny.
▪ Travis Cagle, a Tulsa transplant who’s earned some national attention.
▪ Aaron Scott Hahn, who loves John Carlin and Louis C.K.
Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and all share a vaguely similar story. They admired national comedians growing up. They came from home lives that were unnaturally funny or unnaturally dysfunctional (or both.) Friends or family encouraged or dared them to give standup a try. They bombed on stage. They ruled on stage. Then they bombed again.
Standup has became an addiction that they feed by gobbling up any spotlight they can find, and in Wichita, they have to create their own opportunities. The comedians will show up at an open mic night put on anywhere, even if it’s technically intended for musicians.
Comedians can’t improve without an audience, they say, and its widely believed in their profession that it takes at least 10 years in front of audiences to master the craft.
“Comedians can get up five times a night in New York, L.A. and Chicago,” said Maggard, who has been performing for three years. “In Wichita, you’re lucky to get up five times a month. You end up really valuing the time you have on stage. Every moment you have on stage is really, really important.”
Wichita’s current crop of comedians has learned how to produce shows, and recently, they’ve started doing so regularly. Different performers approach different venues with ideas for shows. Some feature regional headliners, and the locals are the opening acts. Some are showcases of three or more locals, performing back to back.
All of their events are listed on wichitacomedy.com, a website that Kay inherited the keys to and keeps up to date, listing all local comedy events happening around town each month.
Alex Thomas, who owns local bars Barleycorn’s, Kirby’s Beer Store and Lucky’s Everyday, says he’s a fan of standup and has a long history with local comedians. Previous owners of his bars had experimented with open mic comedy nights, so he tried to keep the tradition going when he took them over. The events would draw audiences, lose audiences, then die off.
Last year, Thomas booked an open mic night at Kirby’s, where he first saw Kay perform.
“I thought it was a brilliant set,” said Thomas, who lists Maggard and Pewewardy as two of his other local favorites. “I thought, ‘She’s super talented,’ and I just felt like the maturity of her set was pretty developed and witty, and you could tell there was some time put into the writing.”
He got in touch with Kay via Facebook to share his enthusiasm and the two developed a loose partnership that’s been resulting in even more comedy opportunities of late. A show in late July at Barleycorn’s, Kay and Thomas both said, was one of the group’s best yet. It was well-attended, well-received, well-organized and all the comedians were on point. More shows spotlighting local comedians will happen there soon, said Kay, who lists Thomas as one of the key members of Wichita’s comedy scene, even though he’s not a comedian.
Kay’s comedy clique also works with Gilmore, Crawford and Winn, who all perform locally but spend most of their time on stage at regional comedy clubs in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. The three also are regulars at Loony Bin open mic nights, which are the first and third Wednesdays of every month. The 40 Plus Lounge, a nightclub at 3926 E. 13th St., also frequently offers the young comedians a stage.
Crawford also is in talks with the Loony Bin to begin hosting his own comedy shows on the first Sunday of every month. He plans to start in October and call the shows “Gin and Juice.” He’ll perform his own comedy, born from years of talking trash with his uncles, and invite other black comedians locally and regionally to perform, too.
Hard work being funny
Non-comedians don’t realize, he said, that working up five minutes of good material takes time. Working up 20 to 30 minutes, as he has, takes years.
The only way to improve is to practice, and doing so in Wichita is slowly getting easier, he said.
“The thing Bam preached and preached to me is, ‘You have to get on stage. You have to practice. You cannot sit idle and think you’re going to get up there and kill it. Open mics are like your boxing ring. Your first, second and third rounds dictate how you fight the rest of the fight.”
The cooperation among the new crew of young Wichita comedians is impressive, said the Loony Bin manager Jeremy Woolever. It’s especially impressive because comedians as a breed perform alone on stage and tend to harbor an “every man for himself” attitude.
In September, Woolever said, he’ll launch the 2015 “Funniest Person in Wichita” contest, an elimination joke-off that wraps up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He’s still finalizing the details of this year’s contest.
Wichita’s young comedy crop is talented, he said, as evidenced by the growing audiences at his open mic nights. Sometimes, he gets more than 100 people crowding into the club, and he finds himself looking forward to each installment.
“At the old place, it was kind of going through the routine, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” he said. “Now, I’m excited and can’t wait to see the next show. It’s been awesome. I’ve seen some of them grow and get better and better. I hope they keep it up.”
Local comedians on stage
Wichita Closed Mic All Ladies Show, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Roxy’s Downtown, 412 1/2 E. Douglas, $10
Comedy Open Mic, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Loony Bin Comedy Club, 215 N. St. Francis, $5 (repeats the first and third Wednesday of each month)
Comedy Show Hosted by David and Jessica, 8 p.m. Sept. 3, Artichoke Sandwich Bar, 811 N. Broadway, free
Stand Up at The Shop, 9 p.m. Sept. 19, The Shop, 613 N. Baltimore, Derby, $5
Gin and Juice, Oct. 4, evening of comedy hosted by Deonde Crawford, aka Mr. 316, Loony Bin Comedy Club, 215 N. St. Francis, time and admission TBA
Meet the comedians
Bam "Uncle Bam" Gilmore
Performing standup for: three years
Comedy style: “I'm just being me. I can be clean or raw – however you want your funny.”
Claim to fame: Touring with Hope Flood. Has performed in Los Angeles at the Comedy Store, Laugh Factory and J Spot Comedy Club.
Comedy goal: “To make a difference with laughter”
Favorite famous comedians: Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy
Deonde Crawford a.k.a. Mr. 316
Performing standup for: six years
Comedy style: “A mix between your favorite uncle and that cousin that you hate and that brother that you can’t stand but you love him to death.”
Claim to fame: Opening on stage with Comics Rock Convention in Los Angeles in April, winning Funniest Person in Wichita in 2009
Favorite famous comedians: Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Jim Carrey, Chevy Chase, George Carlin
Performing standup for: 10 years
Comedy style: “Absurd exaggerations on the culture of the everyday.”
Claim to fame: Opening for Bobcat Goldthwait
Comedy goal: “To make people laugh for as long as I physically can.”
Favorite famous comedian: Don Rickles
Performing standup for: Two years
Comedy style: “Storyteller”
Claim to fame: Performed for Mortified ATX
Comedy goal: “Stay true to myself my entire career”
Favorite famous comedian: Gilda Radner
Performing standup for: three years
Comedy style: “Playfully dark”
Claim to fame: “Using standup money to fill up my gas tank several times.”
Comedy goal: “Win the hearts and souls of the nation. Fame.”
Favorite famous comedians: Louis C.K., Pete Holmes, Norm MacDonald, Hannibal Buress, Nick Vatterott, T.J. Miller, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Marc Maron, Tom Segura, Tom Rhodes, Greg Fitzsimmons, Jim Jefferies.
Aaron Scott Hahn
Comedy style: “Blue”
Claim to fame: Opening for two of “The Unbookables” crew, James Inman and Andy Andrist
Comedy goal: “To be as big as Carlin”
Favorite famous comedian: Louis C.K.
Performing standup for: three years
Comedy style: “Naughty dark humor, political satire from a frustrated young man.”
Claim to fame: Winning the 2014 Funniest Person in Wichita contest
Comedy goal: “Be able to afford a neat house.”
Favorite famous comedian: Doug Stanhope
Performing standup for: four years
Comedy style: “Random thoughts and words examined to an unnecessary degree, from a laid back state of mind.”
Comedy goal: “To earn a living solely from comedy while still enjoying it.”
Favorite famous comedians: Mitch Hedberg, Dave Chappelle
Dan the Man
Performing standup for: six months
Comedy style: “High energy low-brow humor”
Claim to fame: Winner of the Rock Chalk Comedy Competition
Comedy goal: “To be as funny as I can be and hopefully someone throws a ton of money at me”
Favorite famous comedian: Mitch Hedberg
Performing standup for: one year
Comedy style: “Real life, raw, uncut, truthful and family-oriented.”
Claim to fame: Performed regionally and in Hollywood, placed in the top five in the Funniest Person in Wichita contest
Comedy goal: “To do an hourlong special at Intrust Bank Arena in front of my hometown”
Favorite comedians: Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Griffin and my grandma, Hazel Simpson, may she rest in peace