Times may be grim, but metro Detroit is having the last laugh. Live comedy is thriving, and our homegrown comics are making names for themselves.
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At a time when a lot that’s happen-ing in Michigan isn’t very funny, metro Detroiters are looking for a good laugh.
Amid staggering unemployment and unrelenting bad economic news, our live comedy scene is going strong. Go Comedy! has established itself as a haven for the improv scene since opening in Ferndale just more than a year ago. And stand-up stalwart Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak is wrapping up its best year in a decade.
“In bad economic times, entertainment thrives,” Ridley says. “We’ve been through our ups and downs. But it’s been pretty darn good.”
In fact, Detroit has a long history as an incubator for comic talent. Gilda Radner, David Alan Grier, and Dave Coulier all hail from the area. Ridley’s club, which opened in 1979, has hosted nearly every big name in comedy over the past 30 years.
“Before the comedy boom [in the 1980s], I would say there were maybe five clubs in the country,” says stand-up comedian Mike Green of Warren. “Mark [Ridley] was one of them. He’s one of the clubs you hear of after a few big ones in L.A. and Boston. He got a jump on it, and he’s always been so great to the comedians. That’s really a big part of it.”
One mark of Detroit’s prominence on the national comedy scene is Ridley’s annual weeklong Detroit International Comedy Festival. This year’s event, called Laugh Detroit, will feature 10 shows with more than 40 comedians at the Comedy Castle and Royal Oak Music Theatre. It will kick off with a March 21 gala at the theater, headlined by comedian Lewis Black.
Ridley’s longtime cultivation of the metro Detroit comedy scene has probably both reinforced and benefited from the locals’ well-developed funny bone; comics and improv actors will tell you that Detroit audiences are some of the best in the country.
“The audiences are amazing,” says Grosse Pointe Park native and improv actor Megan Grano, who now lives in Los Angeles. “I do my one-woman show [in L.A.] and watch my jokes die because no one gets them. I do my show at Go Comedy! and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is what it’s like to do comedy for people who are smart.’ ”
Go Comedy!, a 98-seat theater that showcases comedy improv shows five nights a week, was started by four partners who envisioned “something that would help improv along as a community and as an art form,” says co-founder Tommy LeRoy.
Since opening last November, the theater has helped nurture up-and-coming talent such as Grano, and offered classes to those who have a sneaking suspicion that they have what it takes to crack up an audience. After one of the owners won $100,000 in an Edy’s ice-cream essay contest (winning topic: The need to bring laughter to struggling metro De-troiters), Go Comedy! opened a space for improv classes of all levels.
To be sure, not all comedy clubs are thriving. Coco’s House of Comedy and Bea’s Comedy Kitchen have closed, leaving Detroit proper without any all-comedy clubs (you can still catch stand-up at bars and restaurants throughout the city).
Despite those setbacks, metro Detroit’s scene is strong enough to keep talented comedians employed full time. Green says many comedians who are trying their luck in Los Angeles return home for weeks at a time to earn a living, with gigs that extend beyond Detroit to Flint, Lansing, and Toledo.
“We’re so lucky. Everywhere I go in the country, comedians wish they had a climate like we have here,” Green says. “There’s just a ton of work.”
But those opportunities mean comedians must be adept at switching gears, because not all metro Detroit audiences are created equal, says stand-up comic Michael McDaniel.
“That’s the one thing about Michigan; it’s different everywhere,” he says. “I’ve performed at Chaplin’s [Comedy Club in Clinton Township], Joey’s [Comedy Club in Livonia], and Ridley’s, and it’s three different crowds. It’s the weirdest thing.”
Green has experienced the same divisions. “It differs from east side to west side,” he says. “The east side is a more bar-going, fun-loving, crazy group. West side is more upscale; they want clever as opposed to dirty. More intellectual humor.”
He pauses. “Did I just call east-siders dumb?”
And comics who play bars in Detroit will find the city’s audiences brutal as well as smart, McDaniel says.
“If you have an older, mature crowd in Detroit, you have a great audience,” he says. “If you have a younger hip-hop crowd, you have to find the person who’s heckling you and make fun of them. The moment you go back to your own material, you’re in trouble.”
But that rough-and-tumble atmosphere isn’t all bad for those looking to succeed in a cut-throat industry.
“If you can make it in Detroit,” McDaniel says, “I think you can make it anywhere.”
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