WHAT: Weekly stand-up comedy show from Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman, with New Orleans and touring comics
WHEN: Saturdays (8 p.m.)
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page
Over the past decade or so, the comedy scene in New Orleans has enjoyed an amazing growth spurt that might be tracking in line with scenes in other U.S. cities, and the breadth and depth of it can be pretty amazing. On a lark I finally took the chance to sample another one of these: “Local Uproar,” which Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman co-produce for the AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue.
The 2017 debut show on Saturday (Jan. 7) featured a mix of local and touring comics, and a mix in performances as well. Approaches ranged from the absurd (New York City’s Gina Ginsberg) and sardonic (New Orleans’ Alex Luchun) to the subtly subversive (New Orleans’ DC Paul and the hilariously observational (headliner James Hamilton of New York City). (It should be noted DC Pauls’ mother was in the house, and didn’t act too embarrassed by the material.) Oswell hosts the show, deftly dropping in jokes in between sets and keeping the show moving, and Hoffman popped up for a set marked by a likable stoner vibe.
If the show weren’t free (and with free treats from sponsor New Orleans Ice Cream Company, as well as free red beans), you’d think it was still a bargain at most prices. But the goal of the show is to get people into the bar, and while the evening started out modestly enough, by the end, the place was packed — partly because of the popularity of this show and probably from the one following.
Regardless, the 2017 debut offered the opportunity to get Paul Oswell to review the show’s brief history and success, set against the backdrop of a continually growing New Orleans comedy scene.
How’d you get started in comedy, and, by extension, how did “Local Uproar” get started? (Especially against the backdrop of this growing comedy scene.)
I’d been doing long-form one-man shows for the New Orleans Fringe for three years, and someone suggested stand up and I tried to transfer my material and I was pretty awful. I didn’t go up much in the beginning (2014), but the only way to improve is to go up a lot, so I thought a start would be to run an open mic — I always remember some solid advice from Bella Blue: “If you’re not getting booked, produce the show yourself.” Anyway, I looked at what nights didn’t have a show (Saturdays) and what venues had regular slots and would be natural for comedy (The Allways). We started in May 2015. I co-hosted with my friend Tory Gordon and when she moved away after a couple of months, Benjamin Hoffman came on board.
It was OK — we had patchy attendance and for open mics, you have to stand by the fact that anyone can go up, so quality was inconsistent. At some point, I thought, this is people’s Saturday night, they (and I) don’t want to sit through very bad comedy, so let’s make it a booked show so we know what we’re putting out. One bad comic can drain the energy for the good comic following them, or people will just leave, so let’s avoid that. We did that about a year or so ago, and we haven’t looked back.
Crowds grew, bigger comedians asked if they could do sets, and now we have bigger names swinging by — they love the venue, and we have a packed, engaged room most Saturday nights, I’d say.
So it’s been an evolving thing, much like the scene itself. Talk about that. In your mind, how and why has New Orleans’ comedy scene become to vibrant and spread out over the past several years? Is this another post-Katrina phenomenon?
People like Leon Blanda and the Henehan brothers (Cassidy and Mickey) have been running comedy shows longer than I’ve lived here — I can’t speak to the early days as I wasn’t there, but the Henehans were there post-Katrina and Leon a couple of years later as I understand it. They laid the foundations and were there to give mic time to people like Mark Normand and Sean Patton. When I started out, the second wave was already in effect, with people like Andrew Polk and Joe Cardosi bringing people from outside New Orleans — touring comics from New York City and Los Angeles — into the scene.
Suddenly Hannibal Buress and Louis CK are dropping into New Orleans mics — and we’re still (to this day) talking about bar shows. There’s no comedy club here in the traditional sense. So I was lucky that other people had done the hard work, and me and Benjamin just kind of slotted in, did our thing and hoped we added to the variety.
A year after “Local Uproar” on Saturdays, we started “Night Church” at Sidney’s Saloon on Thursday nights — another booked show, smaller venue, lower key.
Mark Normand and Sean Patton — local comics who have gone onto great things, just for reference.
How do you book your talent? Just fielding applications on Facebook, or what? And, what do you look for in the talent, and how has your eye/ear for talent improved since starting this?
Our shows are a mix. Firstly, we have trusted locals who go up all the time and are solid comics, week in week out. We have a rotating headlining system, so at some point they can all go up and do longer sets (15-plus minutes). Secondly, we have visiting comics (either touring or on vacation) who come and ask us to go up as they’ve heard good things about us — we’re always open to visiting comics as it gives our shows variety and the regular audience members like that a lot. If they’re bigger names in town for other reasons (Tiffany Haddish springs to mind), we’ll let them headline and promo it. If they’re bigger name touring comics, we’ll think about making it a ticketed show — we’d rather have it be free and give all the tips to comics, but at some level pro comics need a guarantee and if that’s the way we can bring people to New Orleans, that’s how we’ll do it. Benjamin is a much bigger comedy nerd than me (especially for younger US comics) so I take his recommendations mainly. A few weeks ago he bought in Hari Kondabolu who I wasn’t aware of previously and that guy sold out two shows on a Sunday. So Benjamin has a better instinct than me!
Last year we also bought in Joe DeRosa and, Shane Mauss and Billy Wayne Davis for ticketed shows. Sometimes they’re just in town on vacation and they approach us, or if they’re touring and passing through, say, Lafayette, their agents will approach us about adding a date. This year, we have Emo Phillips coming in (in June) And I couldn’t be more excited. We don’t earn much money doing this — we try and cover our marketing costs and pay the comics what little we can (a free show depends on bar splits and tips — we may get $100 on a good night total). This is very important: our great sponsors, New Orleans Ice Cream Company — make it easier for us. They not only sponsor us but they also provide ice cream, which we give away at every show — a big draw for us and we’d have less people without them.
When you’re not hosting and performing, where do you like to go for your yucks?
My favorite shows are many: weekly shows include “Comedy Beast” at The Howlin’ Wolf, “Comedy F*ck Yeah” at Dragon’s Den, “Bear With Me” at Twelve Mile Limit, “Comedy Catastrophe” at the Lost Love Lounge.
Some great monthly shows: “The Rip Off Show” at the Hi-Ho Lounge, “I’m Listening” at the VooDoo Lounge, “Stoked” The at Howlin’ Wolf.
There are so many now, I created a website for listings and occasional news: www.nocomedy.com.
I’m still trying to figure out how comedy became a “thing” in New Orleans. Was it just a matter of a few folks you mentioned previously lighting the fuse? It reminds me of the burlesque renaissance, which obviously is different and had been doing OK for several years (let’s say 1996-2005) but got really big after Katrina.
I mean, I’d imagine that stand up comedy has grown in every city, but the scene in New Orleans and the respect it gets from very good professional comics, is down to those people I mentioned — not only lighting the fuse, but making sure it stays lit. Stand-up comedy production is a grind — you have to be there week in week out whether it’s a crowd of two people (and we’ve done shows like that) or a full room. Stand-up comedy is showing up, it’s providing a regular spot and doing it in as professional a way as you can to make sure that the audience and the performers have a good time.
The Henehans and Blanda and Polk all worked the coal face, committed themselves to creating a scene with weekly booked shows and open mics, performing and producing even to five people on a rainy Wednesday, and I hope we’re part of the growing scene. They had people like Louis CK and Doug Stanhope and Bill Burr drop in — in the last few weeks we’ve had Sasheer Zamata (from “SNL”) and Hannibal Buress just swing by and do time at our shows, and I think it speaks well of the local scene, and to the people that put in the real work creating it. I feel like Benjamin and I are part of its maintenance, and hopefully part of its further growth. A real change would be for someone to open a downtown comedy club and it would be a risk but it’s a wide-open niche right now.
What’s the rush for you as a comic? What do you dig about it?
It’s an immediacy thing. Instant validation — laughter (or no laughter) is an immediate assessment of your material AND how you’re presenting it. It’s a challenge to match the material chosen and the way you present it to match the room you’re up at. I like that a lot. That said, I know my limitations as a comic and I’m not even top 20 in New Orleans. I’m OK with that, and though I do like the very clear ways in which I’m so much better than I was in 2014, I also think I’m better as a producer and host and that’s more my comfort zone. But I love being around very funny and talented people two or three nights a week and the mutual support our small scene affords itself. There are very few ego-driven spats, people are broadly happy when anyone advances their careers.