In 2009, Atlanta suddenly had a vibrant comedy scene. Numerous upstart troupes like the Village Theatre joined the ranks of long-standing improvisational outfits such as Dad's Garage and Whole World Improv Theatre. The Laughing Skull Lounge opened in the back of Midtown's Vortex, where comedian/owner Marshall Chiles continues to welcome locals to his stage. Margaret Cho moved to Atlanta in 2009 to film Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva," and quickly made Laughing Skull her home club for stand-up work. Open-mic nights started popping up everywhere from rock clubs to restaurants. "A large part of this recent comedy boom can be traced to the opening of the Laughing Skull," Atlanta comedian Shalewa Sharpe says. "Its presence helped to cultivate a scene, and even a counter-scene of sorts: 'Huh, it's taking me forever to get on that stage, maybe I should start my own show.' Because of that, there are more mics than before."
While Star Bar's Monday nights and Relapse's Thursday nights are two of the city's most respected open mics, there are opportunities all week for young and hungry local comics. "The scene has gotten much stronger than it was when I started 12 years ago," Chiles says. "The only places for a comedian to get on stage then were Eddie's Attic and Uptown Comedy Club. Now, there are like 20 shows a week where new guys can get stage time."
Too much of a good thing can be a problem, though. And in the case of Atlanta's crowded stand-up environment, too much of a mediocre thing can actually make it hard for true talent to shine. "While I'm really proud to see how much the scene has grown just in the last three years, I would actually argue that it's gotten too big for itself from a quality-control standpoint," comedian and former Creative Loafing contributor Noah Gardenswartz says. "There are too many posers or comedy hobbyists who think performing once a week at a pizza joint in Alpharetta qualifies them as comedians. They've made it harder for the city's pros to get paid consistently because some show promoters know there are 50 other worse comics who will do it for free."
And when legitimately funny comedians have trouble getting paid gigs in their hometown, or, alternately, when they feel like they've outclassed most of the local talent, one thing happens: "You want to go where the best comics are," Dave Stone said in a 2011 Paste magazine profile before heading to Los Angeles as his stand-up group, the Beards of Comedy, scattered across the country. "You've got to surround yourself with people that are more talented than you are, and New York and L.A. is where that's at."
For all of Atlanta's Hollywood buzz of late, amid breathless reports of where Owen Wilson has eaten around town or how much fun Jason Bateman was having at the aquarium, the city's entertainment industry is surprisingly hesitant to tap local comedic talent for television and movies. "The city needs to become more appealing for actors to make homes here and know they can have a thriving career," Amber Nash says. Nash saw her first Atlanta improv show in college at Whole World in 1999. She fell in love and started taking classes. She's now a 12-year veteran of Dad's Garage and the voice of Pam on FX's hit animated spy spoof "Archer." "That way those talented comedians don't hit the road the first chance they get. More and more film and television is coming to Atlanta, and the talent agencies need to catch up. We need more and better agencies and managers in Atlanta."
There's also the race issue. There are rooms that get more black talent (Uptown Comedy Corner, Backstage Atlanta) and rooms that get more white talent (Laughing Skull, Punchline). "While it's not intentional cliquishness or exclusivity, there is far too wide a natural divide between Atlanta's black and white comedians," Gardenswartz says. "I will perform for any crowd, anywhere, and actively work black and white rooms. Atlanta has the premier black comedy scene in the country, better than Los Angeles and New York, and I think any comedian in Atlanta that doesn't take full advantage of that has no right to complain if they're not advancing. If you're too scared to fail, and have too frail of an ego to push yourself to see how diverse you can be, than you're really just doing yourself a professional disservice. The more crowds you make yourself available to, the more work there is, and it really is that simple."
But the onus isn't only on the performer. When asked how Atlanta's comedy scene can grow in the years to come, promoter Maurice Sims of the Atlanta House of Comedy said, "The city can definitely grow, comedy-wise, when we add a much needed third club in the city." When pressed to clarify, since Atlanta already has three notable clubs (Punchline, Laughing Skull, and Uptown), he responded, "Honestly, Laughing Skull doesn't count because nobody really knows about it. Just the folks from the old Funny Farm, because they use their old email list from when they closed a few years ago. Black people really don't know it." One could argue that's simply not true, and that such thinking hinders a city's scene, especially one as mixed as Atlanta's.
The city's venues and talent may seem green when compared to more established comedy scenes like Chicago, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, but there's no denying its recent growth. And there are advantages to being part of a newer, less-hyped scene: "Anything is possible," Nash says. "We can do anything we want, there is no one lording over the comedy scene telling us what to do, and I think that enables us to be very open and creative. If you have an idea for a show, you can get it done in Atlanta."
"While we are still a small pond, we have the privilege of being home to three comedy clubs that provide comics with unique opportunities that are harder to come by in bigger cities," comedian Joe Pettis says. "In my first year of comedy, I did shows with Kevin Nealon, Margaret Cho, and Chris Hardwick. I don't think I would have had that opportunity in any other city."
It's an environment that makes young comedians less likely to feel ruined if they bomb, and is already giving rise to a new crop of comics. "There are people who have moved to Atlanta for the opportunities," Sharpe says. "There's a great group of comics waiting in the wings. The class of 2011-2012 is ready to knock out the class of 2009, drag our bodies to the side, and take our stage time."
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