Funny Business

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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Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle // Photographs by Cybelle Codish

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.”

Marc Warzecha // Photographs by Cybelle Codish

Marc Warzecha

> For Marc Warzecha, Detroit politics is the gift that keeps on giving.

The Dearborn Heights native, 32, wrote and directed Kwame a River: The Chronicles of Detroit’s Hip-Hop Mayor. The show ran for seven months at Andiamo Novi and was such a hit that it spawned a sequel, Kwame a River 2: The Wrath of Conyers.

“When I was working in the comedy scene in Detroit, I always thought local material played better than anything else,” says Warzecha, who now lives in Los Angeles. “There’s no place for [Detroiters] to see comedy or satire about their city. I wrote the show for Detroiters; it wouldn’t make any sense to anybody else.”

Warzecha began his comedy career in high school with a public-access sketch-comedy program in Dearborn Heights with Tommy LeRoy, who now co-owns Go Comedy! in Ferndale. In 1997, Warzecha got hired as an actor at Second City in Detroit, and then as a director. Later, he acted, wrote, and directed for Second City in Las Vegas and Chicago.

Today, Warzecha is working with other Second City alums on a pilot for Comedy Central and producing a documentary on improv comedy that includes interviews with Fred Willard, Valerie Harper, and actors from Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Look for a Detroit premiere at Go Comedy! early this year.)

Warzecha returns regularly to the Detroit area to work and see his family. He clearly keeps his finger on the local pulse. The material that gets the biggest laughs at Kwame 2, he says, isn’t the political satire, but the spoofs of local commercials like those for the Bernstein Law Firm and of local figures like Geoffrey Fieger.

“I think that the comedy scene right now has a couple of bright spots, and the bright spots are very bright,” Warzecha says of his hometown. “I hope we can continue to expand beyond those. I think there’s a lot of talent in Detroit and a lot of opportunity for growth.”

Mike Green // Photograph by Cybelle Codish

Mike Green

> For Mike Green, the road to being the hot new thing on the comedy scene took a couple of decades to traverse.

Green, 44, got his start 23 years ago at open-mike night at Ridley’s Comedy Castle. Today, he performs at clubs around the country and is the subject of a new documentary, Be Funny. He won Michigan’s Funniest Person contest and the New York Comedy Expo in 2007, and was recently chosen to perform at the global gaming conference in Las Vegas, beating out dozens of others comedians.

“I do a lot of observational stuff, which is the wave of comedy right now — a lot of ‘Remember when you were a kid…’ stuff,” Green says. “I’m hilarious, really.”

Green still performs at Ridley’s club, and calls the longtime comedy manager “one of the best there is.

“And he’s funny,” Green says. “He can watch a brand-new comedian, stand in the back of the room and watch him like he’s watching comedy for the first time.”

Green performs nationally as well as locally, including appearances in Las Vegas and Atlantic City at the Tropicana a couple of times a year. He also performed during the Jerry Lewis telethon in 2006.

“I do just about any club that’ll book me,” Green says. “This is all I do. I’ve been making a living at it for the past 15 years.”

Green hopes that his performance at the gaming conference in Las Vegas, which draws casino per-sonnel from around the world, will build on his win of the Michigan’s Funniest Person Contest (which he describes as a comedy Survivor) and lead to a booked New Year.

“I have a great short set; I can do a lot of jokes in a few minutes,” Green says. “On stage, I’m really funny.”

Megan Grano //Photograph by Cybelle Codish

Megan Grano

> Megan Grano is worried about the economic suffering of metro Detroiters. Or, at least, of those who live in the Grosse Pointes.

The Grosse Pointe Park native’s satirical video, Poor Grosse Pointe features the improv comedian interviewing people on the street in the Pointes and then in Detroit about how they’re coping with the economic downturn. The video, which can be found on funnyordie.com, has garnered her a viral following.

20/20 did almost the same video, except they took it seriously,” Grano says. “But mine was a joke.”

Grano got her start in a high-school comedy group, Second Suburb, after a visit to Chicago’s Second City (in the era of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell) got her hooked. After college, Grano moved to Chicago and repeatedly auditioned for Second City — a tough go, since the comedy-improv institution holds auditions just once a year, with hundreds of people vying for just a few spots.

“It all comes down to three minutes, and it’s all improv, so if you get a crappy partner you’re just screwed for a year,” Grano says. “That happened to me more than once, where like, someone flies in from Kentucky and you’re like, ‘I waited all year for this!’ And my cell phone went off during one audition, and it was set to an increasing volume ring so it kept getting louder.”

But she got called back each time and eventually was hired. She spent several years performing on Second City’s main stage and with its touring company. She also wrote a show with three other female comedians that was accepted into the prestigious HBO Comedy Arts Festival, and won a national video contest sponsored by the Oxygen network.

That success propelled Grano to move to Los Angeles, where making it is “way harder than Chicago,” she says. She’s landed voice-over jobs on Family Guy and American Dad, and is touring comedy festivals with her one-woman show about weddings.

“Weddings drive me crazy,” she says. “It’s kind of a narrative story about one girl’s wedding and all the people involved in her special day.”

The tour included a two-month run at Go Comedy! in Ferndale over the summer, and Grano says she hopes to return this year. But this time, Grosse Pointers might know to be on the lookout for a concerned citizen with a microphone and camera.

Michael McDaniel // Photograph by Cybelle Codish

Michael McDaniel

It’s hard to find much to joke about in today’s real-estate market. But there must be something funny, because real estate launched Michael McDaniel’s stand-up career.

A couple of years ago, the River Rouge native was working in the industry. “At the time, I was selling time shares,” says McDaniel, 31. “I would go into a room full of people and crack them up, and then ask them for $20,000. Apiece.”

In 2007, after performing at an awards banquet in Novi above the Wise Guys Comedy Club, the owner hired him to host at the club, giving McDaniel his first stand-up gig. He soon quit his day job and became a full-time comic, basing his shows on characters from his life and impersonations.

“Barack, Chappelle, Dr. Phil, Will Smith — you pretty much name ’em, I can do ’em,” he says.

After getting hired at Wise Guys, he says, “I spent Thursday mornings calling, trying to get on the [open mike] list at the Comedy Castle. Nothing but good things have been happening since.”

Indeed, McDaniel has come a long way in a short time. In March, he won the Detroit International Comedy Festival. Last summer, he performed at Laugh-A-Palooza at Meadow Brook and had a leading role in Pawn Shop, an independent film shot on Detroit’s west side — also starring Garrett Morris and Joe Torry — slated for release by Universal this year.

Next month, he travels to New York for a joint appearance with fellow metro Detroit native Dave Coulier. He performs monthly at Allen Park’s All Star Comedy Club, and he’ll perform several times this year at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle.

“Most black comics who have been on BET, Def Comedy Jam, they’re in bars in the city. They’re in and out, with no real connection there,” McDaniel says. “I’m in the middle of everything. The mainstream knows about me because I’ve marketed myself and worked really hard to stay somewhere in the middle.

“It depends on who you are and what breaks you catch,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate.”

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