With the addition of a new comedy club and an increasing number of open-mic comedy shows, Athens is seeing a growth in its laugh industry.
The Moonlight Theater Company, the city’s newest comedy club, opened in January 2019. In addition, the coffee and bar hub on Prince Avenue, Hendershot’s, now hosts three comedy shows which began in August.
The comedy scene has recently grown with bigger-name comedians coming to the 40 Watt Club and more open mic nights available to comedy fans. These additions have made it easier, if not more appealing, for budding comedians to take the stage.
On a Tuesday at Flicker Theatre & Bar, the crowd scrutinized a 15-year-old boy before them as he walked around the stage with one hand in his pocket and a casual grasp on a mic with the other. Young comedian Alex Ryder shocked the crowd at the OpenTOAD open mic night with his quick recovery, repeated curses, and, most of all, his funny jokes.
Ryder’s entrance into the local comedy scene is a testament to Athens’ diverse comedy landscape. His brand of comedy, which centralizes around a high schooler living in a college town, appeals to the many university students who can reflect on their own high school experiences not too long ago.
The Athens scene is tailored to stand-up, improv and sketch comedies.
Due to the city’s legacy as both a college town and as a launching pad for various music groups throughout the years, entertainers have consistently flocked to Athens.
Chase Brantley, owner of Moonlight, emphasizes the need for variety in comedy. Along with stand-up, plays and sketch comedy concepts should also be explored.
“It’s just a spark,” Brantley said. “I don’t just go in and I’m like, ‘Who’s getting the biggest laughs?’”
Know your audience
Big-name comedians like Jerry Seinfeld have come out against college town performances for being too “PC” or politically correct. But local acts have said this idea may be overstated.
Shaunak Godkhindi, host of OpenTOAD Comedy, said audience sensitivity is often a scapegoat when comedians “can’t seem to make things funny.”
“I think you’re just not engaging that audience by finding common denominators,” Godkhindi said. “I think that there are still [comedians] that come through college towns ... and do great.”
In Evie Jones’ opinion, the type of material a performer uses can affect whether or not the crowd reacts in a positive or negative way. Jones is both a popular in-town comedian and the host of Decaf Comedy, a bi-monthly show at Hendershot’s.
“A lot of sexist rhetoric does not go well, racist jokes do not go well,” Jones said. “For people who can try it, I think they immediately can see that it’s not something that the crowd wants. And whether or not they continue to do that kind of joke is basically up to them.”
Many comics didn’t start in stand-up, but instead were introduced to the scene through a well-known staple for student comedians at the University of Georgia — Improv Athens.
Many of the same students involved in Improv Athens have and continue to go on to do stand-up in town, host open mics and do comedy professionally. Even for those who graduate, many still come back to help the scene which helped them grow into the comedians they are today.
Godkhindi and Jack Peeples, former host of Empty Cap at Walker’s Coffee & Pub, both started out in Improv Athens and are still working comedians today, alongside both Piper Ruhmkorff who originally started Decaf Comedy at Two Story Coffeehouse before it was moved to Hendershot’s.
In addition to stand-up, the three comics also have an improv troupe called Six Kids, composed of former Improv Athens members, some of whom like to return to perform stand up in Athens.
Laughter for all ages
But the scene isn’t all about students. Ever since Decaf Comedy became a booked show earlier this year, Jones said he’s seen “more townie adults in the community” in their 20s and 30s looking to try it out.
On a Thursday at 8 p.m. at a Let’s Go Comedy Show, around five to 10 comics attended, many of whom were not students but Athens area residents or touring comedians. The show itself is run by Alia Ghoshesh, an Athens resident and comedian.
Brantley of Moonlight Theater also sees the value of providing opportunities for older comedians.
In addition to booking local groups, such as UGA students, he also hosts a residency program for touring comics. The program provides certain accommodations such as housing and a food stipend which diversifies audiences’ comedy intake while also providing touring comics a stage.