Laugh it up

It’s Oscar night and things could be going better. Jim Zarling is doing stand-up in front of a crowd of 25 or 30 people at the Southern and, for whatever reason, he’s having trouble connecting. His first few jokes get some modest laughs, and then he flubs—totally flubs—a routine about cult members. He hits the punchline early and wrong and doubles over to laugh at himself for screwing it up.

This could be a Rupert Pupkin moment, a downward spiral of flop sweat, much to the teeth-clenching, stomach-churning secondhand embarrassment of all present. But Jim recovers, starts back at the beginning of his bit, powers through to the punchline and sticks the landing. The audience laughs and applauds his composure. And then a few off-the-cuff comments about how much the audience seems to enjoy watching someone struggle (“You guys must love Ricky Gervais shows”) get one of those big laughs, a cathartic, everything’s-O.K. laugh that rises up from the audience awash with relief and genuine amusement. Jim finishes his set to laughter and applause.

After the show, he says he’s happy with the audience turnout and response, considering the Oscars kept many people at home or decked out in tuxes and evening gowns at the Paramount. The touring comics that Jim and fellow Charlottesvillian Leah Woody were opening for that night had just done a show for an audience of six in North Carolina. By anyone’s standards, for a town Charlottesville’s size and on a Sunday night—which also happened to be the night of one of the biggest TV events of the year —the show at the Southern was successful. And yet that kind of faint praise doesn’t do justice to what Zarling and Woody and a handful of other locals have managed to do over the last few years. They have nurtured a full-on stand-up comedy scene in Charlottesville. And it’s quite good.

Talk about stand-up comedy in Charlottesville, you inevitably start with Gary Greenwood, a teacher from Fluvanna County who calls himself a “good ole country boy” and was doing the redneck comedy thing back when Larry the Cable Guy was still khakis-wearing Dan Whitney of Nebraska. He started around 1982, when, as he tells it, “I saw this awful comic in Richmond and thought, ‘I can be at least as awful as him.’”

Greenwood began with open-mic nights in Richmond and within a year, he was performing regularly at some of the hotels on Routes 29 and 250, which he liked as venues largely because they had ample parking. He even opened for Carrot Top when the prop comic came through town, which was a pretty big deal at the time (remember these were the heady days of the mid-’80s, when Yakov Smirnoff and Gallagher ruled the airwaves and Carrot Top didn’t yet resemble a steroidal “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reject).

Greenwood had a pretty good thing going, but by 1985, the still nascent Charlottesville stand-up scene dried up as quickly as it had started. Sheraton and Comfort Inn stopped booking shows, and for more than two decades, the only comedy available in Charlottesville was when the Smirnoffs, Gallaghers and Dice Clays of the world blew through on their yearly migrations to Branson, Missouri.

That all changed in November 2008, when Jim Zarling and Bill Metzger performed their first show together at Buddhist Biker Bar on the UVA Corner. Zarling had signed up on a whim to do stand-up for a charity benefit two years prior, and he had a blast, so when the chance came to do stand-up at Vivace a year later, he took it. Finally, he put an ad on Craigslist to see if anyone in Charlottesville wanted to try and make a go of doing stand-up with him. Amazingly, he got a response within days, and it wasn’t even from Nigerian scammers or sado-masochist organ thieves. It was Bill Metzger.

Jim Zarling onstage: “They say life is hard for gifted children. It was double hard for me: I was a re-gifted child.”

The two had a lot in common from the beginning: surely—surely!—they bonded over the whole “Hey! Your last name has a ‘z’ in it too!” thing, but they also both worked on staff at UVA, Zarling as a manager at the copy shop and Metzger as a supervisor of University bus drivers. More significantly, they shared a hunger to pursue stand-up that has since led both of them to focus on striving to be full-time, professional comedians. And yet it almost never happened at all. “Bill Metzger doesn’t call, maybe I don’t become a comic,” says Jim.

But Bill did call, and they started doing a few shows, and soon enough, Jim got another call, this one from Johnny Mac (real name: John McCullough). A William & Mary graduate originally from the Richmond area, Johnny had gotten his start in stand-up in, of all places, Fairfield, Iowa, population 9,500. He had gone to Fairfield more than 10 years before to study transcendental meditation at the improbably named Maharishi University of Management. A comedian named Gavin Jerome came to Maharishi U. to wow the locals with tales of life in Des Moines and to teach a stand-up seminar. Johnny liked it so much that he spent the next nine years in Chicago and New York, training in improv comedy at the famous ImprovOlympic in Chicago and trying to make it as an actor and comedian. He made his way back to Virginia in 2008, just in time to get involved with Zarling and Metzger’s fledgling group of comics.

The three of them, Jim, Bill and Johnny, have been the core of Charlottesville’s stand-up scene ever since. Not long after starting up, they were running regular open-mic nights at Buddhist for anyone who wanted to come up with some material. That evolved into a loose collective they call the Charlottesville Comedy Roundtable, which once met weekly so that comics in the area could workshop ideas for stand-up bits before trying them out on an audience. Last year, Johnny eventually branched out into teaching his own private, stand-up seminar, holding two seven-week-long courses on comedy writing and performing. He’s currently registering anyone who wants to take this year’s version of the class. It begins on April 3.

And that brings Charlottesville comedy pretty much up to the present. Things have been shaky at times—most notably, the Roundtable’s patchy history with open-mic night venues, which resembles nothing so much as Frogger leaping from sinking log to sinking log. One by one, Buddhist Biker Bar, Bel Rio and the 12th Street Taphouse all opened their doors to stand-up comics only to close months later. The Southern is hoping for better luck, as it’s just started hosting open-mic nights on select Tuesdays. Still, things are on the upswing for Charlottesville comedians. It used to be that anyone who wanted to tell jokes had to go at least to Richmond to find an audience. Now, comics from Richmond and as far afield as Knoxville and Atlanta are coming here to perform alongside the Roundtable comedians.

All this culminated in that Oscars weekend when Zarling almost lost his audience and then found it again. Emceeing that night was Leah Woody, one of Charlottesville’s rare female comics, who started doing stand-up because, she says, “It was my New Year’s resolution to do more things that scare the shit out of me.” Woody says that she gets a bout of stage fright every time she’s about to perform, and her nerves were maybe just a bit evident when she started that night. But after getting a big laugh for a bit about teetering on the edge of cat-ladydom, Woody loosened up. That, according to Woody, is the secret to her comedy. “In Charlottesville, it’s not like it is at a comedy club,” she says. “People expect to see you bomb and might not be paying attention. You need the first big laugh. You need to get people on your side.”

Bill Metzger had little trouble doing just that the night before at Play On Theatre. He was performing in a show that events promoter Ty Cooper put on as part of his more-or-less monthly “National Stand-up Comedy Series.” Cooper has been bringing national comedy acts to Charlottesville for nearly a year, and Bridget McManus, billed as “America’s funniest lesbian,” was the act for February. Richmond comic Odyssey Michaels was the emcee that night. Metzger opened. He was a mellow counterbalance to the manic energy of Michaels and McManus, and he won over a crowd that wasn’t necessarily there to see him.

Leah Woody, a rare woman on the local scene: “It’s hard being single in Charlottesville because it is such a small town and everyone knows everyone. For example, have you ever started dating someone, and you really like them…and then you find out that not that long ago, they slept with your best friend? That totally happened. To my best friend.”

At the risk of drowning in stereotypes, the parking lot was not for want of Subarus and there were plenty of cell phones with Indigo Girls ringtones. All I’m saying is that it was a niche audience. And yet, even if most of the crowd came for McManus (who was very funny, to be sure, as was Michaels), Metzger definitely had people on his side by the end of his set. He finished with a joke pertaining to 9/11 that actually didn’t suck the air out of the room—no small feat for any comic, let alone a local working a small theater in Charlottesville.

Of course, that may have something to do with the citywide consensus that Charlottesville isn’t like other towns its size. Remington Donovan, a local stand-up who’s performed a few times in the city since taking Johnny Mac’s class, says the audience here “seems like more of an extended family. Charlottesville is very supportive of people and their artistic endeavors. It’s a great town for that.”

Metzger has a similar take. “Charlottesville audiences are great,” he says. “You have a lot of young people, you have a lot of people who are smart. You have people who won’t get upset if you tell an off-color joke, as long as it’s clever. Charlottesville audiences are able to recognize that and respond to it.”

Indeed, the Charlottesville Comedy Roundtable has found a responsive audience in this town. There was the one fiasco at Fellini’s #9 when Greenwood was so disheartened by the audience’s response—or lack thereof—to his “country boy” material that he dropped the mic and left the stage after five minutes. But otherwise, all the Roundtable comics’ bombing stories are from the road. Greenwood tells of another incident where he, Zarling, and a few of the other guys played to a stone-faced crowd in Covington. They only figured out after the show that Zarling had booked them to follow a Bible study. Metzger’s got a story about a show in Scottsville where the manager of the bar they were performing at heckled them the whole time, screaming, “Go home!” throughout their sets—then he asked after the show if they wanted to come back the next week. Woody remembers being shaken at a show in Richmond when the first comic to go onstage forgot his entire set and just stood there with a white-knuckle grip on the mic, muttering, “I can’t believe this is happening.” And so on the stories go, all cringe-inducing on some level and yet all affirmations that things, for the most part, are going well for comedians in Charlottesville.

Part of that is thanks to Ty Cooper, he of the national stand-up series, who wants Charlottesville on the map for comedians touring nationally and says he’s committed to always giving local comedians a platform on his shows. And he’s stuck to this, giving hosting or opening act duties to Charlottesvillians at every show he’s done so far. Metzger’s rising to the occasion is exactly the sort of thing Cooper is counting on in giving a spotlight to local comics. The comics who have come to town through his series aren’t necessarily names you’d recognize—McManus, Eric Frost, a guy named only Skiba—but they are professional comedians. They don’t have day jobs and they’re doing this on a national level. Getting to open for or introduce them has been a great opportunity for every Roundtabler who’s done it.

Cooper also has some distant plans for one day opening a club in Charlottesville. He’s skeptical of Charlottesville’s ability to support a dedicated club on the scale of Richmond’s Funny Bone, but he has high hopes for the prospects of a nightclub that could host stand-ups a few nights a week.

If it all seems too perfect, it may well be. There’s definitely a minor undercurrent of tension between Cooper and the Roundtable comics, and it stems largely from the premium Cooper puts on diversity. He sees comedy as a chance to promote diversity in a city that remains in many ways starkly divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

“Downtown is where we really need diversity, and these shows force people together in an intimate space,” Cooper says. “Sometimes you have to give people what they need by giving them what they want. If I can put a Glenmore heart surgeon next to someone who lives in Garrett Square, I’m happy.” But even if he can bring in a diverse crowd to his shows, Cooper says the performers just aren’t diverse enough.

Promoter Ty Cooper invites local comics to open for touring national headliners as part of his monthly comedy series.

Zarling, for one, respectfully but forcefully disagrees. He says that around half of the Charlottesvillians who have regularly taken the stage at open-mic nights have been from minority groups. In contrast, says Zarling, “Several of us performed at a comedy festival in Richmond last fall, and out of the 60-plus comics that performed, I’d say that less than 10 were from minority groups. Now, does Virginia have a diversity problem? Does Charlottesville? Those might be fairer questions than, ‘Does this show that currently happens once a month have a diversity problem?’’’ Johnny Mac agrees with Zarling and contends that any perceived lack of diversity isn’t anything they could do much about. “Our door remains open,” he says. “Anyone who is willing to do the work required is welcome.

Cooper and the Roundtable in time may just work through this sore spot. But in the meantime, the local comics say they’re happy to just keep honing their acts. Zarling is trying to do a bit more touring so that he can ultimately make a living as a stand-up, and Metzger just moved to comedian-friendly Richmond, though he continues to work his day job and do stand-up in Charlottesville. He’s got an eye on one day moving to Austin, which has a major underground comedy scene but isn’t quite as competitive as New York City—where Metzger has done a few shows in the past.

As for the rest of the crew, they all just want to keep getting better without having to leave Charlottesville to do it. Remington Donovan jokes, “My goal is to supersede Leah. That’s all I want,” but in all sincerity, every last comic has echoed a sentiment that Metzger voiced: “I have a vision in my head of the comedian I want to be, but it’s never going to end. A poem never ends—you just stop writing it. I just want to be really good.”

Johnny Mac compares that kind of devotion and the way it plays out in performance to his experiences with Zen way back in Iowa. “Just like in Zen, if you succeed, you’ve got to move on to the next moment. There’s only one answer for any given moment, and when you hit it, it’s so exhilarating. I don’t know if I’d call it nirvana, but it’s pretty cool.” 

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