Toledo’s underground comedy scene picks up steam

I did stand-up comedy for four years, and if Steve Martin’s correct about failing on stage, then my life during that time was a seemingly neverending Groundhog’s Day of horribly conceived fart jokes. Why would someone subject themselves to the humiliation, routine anxiety and depression that stand-up comedy has to offer? Somehow, I’d be inclined to question it myself— if my time spent embarrassing myself on a microphone in Toledo wasn’t so exhilarating.

A View from the bottom

The first time I ever hit the stage, it was for revenge. I overheard that a high school buddy of mine was doing shows, and like the self-centered idiot I am, I considered his desire to get laughs a personal affront. I knew I was funnier than he was. I was sure of it. And if anyone was going to get attention while drinking and shouting at people through a microphone, then goddamnit, it was going to be me. I did 15 minutes of completely uninspired, immemorable material and remember feeling very satisfied with myself.

Now, before this starts to sound like a memoir of someone who’s actually accomplished something, realize that I burnt out after being banned from the now-closed Connxtions (who’s laughing now?), barred from the stage in a number of open mic rooms, and fired from nearly every radio station in town. My last show was spent standing atop the table of a drunk heckler arguing that Applebee’s shouldn’t promote bottomless tots as an appetizer because the radio commercials would confuse peodophiles— while I angrily kicked over his martini. Now about two years later, peaking my head out of the crumpled looseleaf papers containing old set lists, and dipping my toes back into that depraved cesspool of ego maniacs, I can see that things have only gotten worse, for the better.

Setup and punchline

To better understand the lineage of comedy in Toledo, I reached out to one of our longest running and most successful straight-up stand-ups, Steve Sabo – the “legit guy” on the scene for quite a while. He’s a voracious road comic, traveling 52 weeks a year, and he’s one of the first people to build an open mic room that let aspiring idiots, like myself, take the stage. Sabo was kind enough to talk to me while traveling between gigs. 

“After watching Toledo waver with only one club, I wanted to establish more rooms for people interested in building a routine. September of 2001 was the first time I tried putting a show together, which kind of floundered until we started workshopping each others sets. It didn’t really get better until around 2006 and started maturing in 2009,” Sabo reminisced.

Around that time, options for stage time were extremely limited, if you didn’t travel. There was the now-defunct Connxtions Comedy Club on Heatherdowns in South Toledo, and odd open-mic nightmares which consisted of bowling alley basements and standing in front of TV’s playing football games while annoyed sports fans tried to ignore you.

That’s why the open-mics are so important. They build a community of beautiful… well, mediocre-looking losers. They gave you a team to root for and, somewhat, belong to.

The 3 step process to disappointing your parents

A career in stand-up comedy has three tiers.

Stage 1 Open-mics

This is where you learn the basic mechanics for writing, performing and dealing with a live audience. This stage is the strangest because it can last the shortest, or longest, amount of time. I’ve seen people do three shows and vault into paid spots, but then I’ve also seen people live in this phase for years.

Stage Two: MC

You open shows with a five minute set. You are now judged by the the comedy gatekeepers as funny enough to warm up the crowd, push club promotions and to not butcher the names of the people you are introducing as established comics. This may sound lame, but it feels amazing because now that cash is involved, you are officially a working comedian. You reading this, Dad?!

And finally, Stage 3: Featuring/headlining

Featured Comics do 20 minutes after the MC, to better warm the crowd for the headliner. The distinction between being the guy up after the MC, but before the headliner is vast. This stage is all about honing your craft and hoping that one day you will be able to take your sex jokes and deep-seated depression on the road. This is where the non-gender specific adolescents get separated from the non-gender specific adults. If you are willing to live in the mode of ramen noodles, couches and seminal fluid-stained comedy condos, then you might just have a shot at working in a bigger market and building a name for yourself.

Live on the (insert part of town here) Strip

There are not many situations in which a person on a microphone will plainly break down how they lost their virginity less than 24 hours ago, in a staunchly self deprecating manner. But last Monday night at Sukit Hookah, at 1919 Monroe Street next door to the Peacock Cafe, during the open-mic, this was precisely that cringe-worthy situation. If you think being funny in a dark comedy club full of drunk people already warmed up for a good time is hard, well then you’re right. Now, apply that challenge to a well-lit, sober audience— sounds horrendous. Yet somehow it not only works, but works extremely well. Every Monday you can find aspiring comics paying dues and putting in time for an audience that is sophisticated enough to leave pretension at the door and let newcomers work stuff out. The show is hosted by Anthony Martinez and Mike Szar who open each show with a seemingly-stoned, Abbott and Costello-esque, back and forth.

“I’m so glad to be able to get (stage) time, and help other comics get time, in town. Before there were a couple open-mics like this around town, we’d have to travel to Detroit or Cleveland and maybe not even get up (on the stage). It’s fun, but you were just hemorrhaging money to travel and then get home late and dread getting up for your job in the morning,” said Szar. 

Martinez chimed in, “This started kinda selfish because we wanted more stage time, but now, we’ve got a super supportive community [that] has been great. We’ve got guys getting up here tonight for the first time, and they have other comics encouraging them rather than just struggling through and going home depressed.”  

Sukit Monday nights are just the beginning of the amateur Toledo area comics’ work week. Tuesday night in Bowling Green is Grumpy Dave’s Comedy Show, on the corner of Wooster and Main, founded by Steve Sabo and currently run by resident funny guy and booze bag, Jake Dickey. On Grumpy’s best nights it’s a tremendous crowd and on it’s worst you get a room full of comics, quick to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Wednesdays you could get up at The Moxie, Adams Street’s recently-closed bar, where shows were a strange array of comics ranging from run-of-the-mill observational comedy to an outlandish experimental duo calling themselves “Crust Slimeson and Wrinkle LongD**k” and closing with, what I can only assume, at least a 67-year old man calling himself Father Time, who spoke sarcastically about his last erection years prior. Weekends, of course, host shows at the established clubs, Laffs Inc. and The Funnybone, both of which bring in comics from all over the country.

Bergman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Toilet Humor)

These open-mic locations have really provided a foothold for a number of people to (mildly) succeed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give the local up-and-comers a shout out for all of their hard work, not only on stage, but behind the scenes to keep the laughs rolling. 

The first is Keith Bergman, a snarky, bespectacled funnyman who looks like the chubby ghost of ‘hipster past’ and is the hardest working comic in Toledo, or at least that’s the impression I get reading his Facebook timeline. Anytime you hear about a new open-mic happening in town, it’s likely his doing. And between his ever expanding list of dates on the road in the past few months, he’s put his first comedy album Disheveled, which is available through Amazon, and he has also launched the Pittin’ Out Comedy Tour, which will take him to crowds all over the midwest.

Another formidable local comic is Brad Wenzel, a shy one-liner comic who’s absurd jokes are tempered with a deadpan delivery that would make Steven Wright proud. Brad’s been working Toledo since before Connxtions closed down, and from the first time I saw him, it was obvious he was going to be hated, because he was so damn good. Wenzel is currently touring regionally after winning first place in Norfolk’s Great American Comedy Festival. It’s nice to have someone locally who, when Googled, isn’t a total embarrassment. He was also, unfortunately, too busy for a quote. (Thanks Brad, ya jerk.)

So, If you have ever wondered what it would be like to try comedy, right now is the best time it has ever been to be an aspiring funny person in Toledo. I urge you to write five minutes and to get out there and give it a try. It’s a beautiful— yet dreadful, adrenaline rush. 

I once spoke with my favorite comedian, Mike Birbiglia, when I was pondering if I could ever get up there. He told me, “It’s like sky diving. Sure, jumping out of an airplane is scary as hell, but the safety is in knowing you have the parachute, so you’re not gonna die. Well, maybe you’ll die, but that’s skydiving not stand-up comedy.”

Nice story about the scene, but where can I see these fabulous local comedians?

Mondays at 10pm
Sukit Hookah Open Mic Comedy
1919 Monroe St. FREE

Tuesdays at 9:30pm
Grumpy Dave’s
104 South Main Street, Bowling Green FREE

First Thursday of the month at 9pm
Our Brothers Place L.O.L. Lounge
233 N. Huron St. FREE

Third Wednesday of the month at 7:30pm
Funny Bone
6140 Levis Commons Blvd.
$5 cover.

First Thursday of the month at 7pm
Laff’s Inc 3922 Secor Rd.
$5 cover.