The term “alternative comedy” is fairly broad. Legendary Comedian of Comedy Patton Oswalt defines it as “comedy where the audience has no preset expectations about the [performers], and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe–alternative comedy explores different types of material.”
The term “alternative comedy” is fairly broad. Legendary Comedian of Comedy Patton Oswalt defines it as “comedy where the audience has no preset expectations about the [performers], and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe–alternative comedy explores different types of material.” Comedians such as Oswalt, David Cross, Dana Gould, and Bob Odenkirk paved the way for alternative comedy beginning in the 90’s, opening the doors for comedians like Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis, and Maria Bamford. By performing comedy in music venues and other places instead of comedy clubs, these comedians found a relatable audience–people who wouldn’t be upset or turned off by something weird, new, or different. In recent years, The Midnight Suggestion & Hit Play brands have become synonymous with alternative comedy in Richmond.
Roughly 5 years ago, local booker and producer Johnny Hugel began setting up comedy shows in venues such as Strange Matter, Gallery 5, and Steady Sounds. Though he has a job working as a producer for a Richmond-based software design company called Mobelux, Hugel is neck-deep and heavily invested in the city’s comedy community. During his spare time, he runs Hit Play, a creative production company that produces videos, web-series (e.g. Strange Bedfellows), and live comedy shows such as the semi-monthly favorite, The Midnight Suggestion, which he co-produces.
Before Hugel began booking these events, Richmond didn’t really have a place for alternative comedy. In major cities, comedy thrives as much as any other form of art. With legendary places like the Comedy Cellar in New York, Largo in Los Angeles, and Second City in Chicago, the groundwork for a strong comedy community has been laid out. Even in slightly smaller cities such as Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, and D.C. a community exists. However, where the national comedy scene is concerned, “Richmond is a secondary market,” says Hugel.
Nonetheless, he has brought in a variety of nationally-known comics, such as Kyle Kinane, Nick Thune, Todd Barry, Neil Hamburger, and most recently Duncan Trussell. For relatively well-known comics like these to skip traditional Richmond comedy venues speaks to a shared philosophy. “I think most of the comedians that match the sentiment that I’m interested in would rather do a show in Richmond for people who understand their humor, rather than make a little bit more money with a crowd of people that just came to see comedy,” Hugel explains.
When choosing the venue for an alternative comedy event, Hugel must take into account the comic’s personality. At a venue like Strange Matter, which regularly hosts hardcore and experimental bands, stand-up can be a bit tough to perform. “It’s bad for noise,” says Hugel, “The bar is so long and narrow [that] when the floor fills up, people start lining up along the bar to talk.” Kyle Kinane, whose comedy album, Death of the Party, was featured on the AV Club’s Best Comedy Albums of 2010, “is familiar with a rowdy punk crowd,” so Hugel felt that Strange Matter was Kinane’s natural habitat.
Since 2003, Hugel has taken opportunities to uncover and progress Richmond’s arts/entertainment culture, starting with music and then transitioning into comedy. When he started out, “there wasn’t a whole lot of independent music being booked in town.” He and a couple of his friends originally started Hit Play to bring in bands that they wanted to see. Some of the larger shows they booked featured Melt Banana, Isis, and Death From Above 1979, whom Hugel and his team worked with “right as they were taking off.” After a couple of years of booking music, “the scene seemed to dry up again … and there was a lot more competition.” In ’05-’06, he took a much needed break. He had been losing money and staying out late, and the work “stopped being fun, and it stopped having an impact.” Other members of his production team also began to move out of Richmond around the same time. “Since I started doing things again, Hit Play has been just me,” says Hugel.
During this lull period, Hugel didn’t completely stop doing the things he did best. He would occasionally set up movie screenings or help put the right people in touch with each other. Eventually, he got involved with a couple of live comedy shows. Like Michael Corleone said in The Godfather Part III, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. “A lot of my friends were doing comedy regularly, and for the same reason that I started doing music, I started reaching out to comedians,” says Hugel. His first email was sent to a little-known comedian named Zach Galifianakis, who at the time was gaining notoriety on a TV show called Dog Bites Man that aired on Comedy Central. Hugel’s first comedy show was actually a “battle of the bands for comedians,” in which comics competed for the opportunity to open for Galifianakis. “It was right when Dog Bites Man was taking off, and he had to keep putting off coming” to Richmond. A few months later, Galifianakis blew up, and sadly, the Richmond show never did happen.
Fortunately, his next venture was a bit more successful. He teamed up with local improv group the Richmond Comedy Coalition to bring comedian Chris Gethard into town for an episode of his legendary online TV show, The Chris Gethard Show. “We put them in touch with GWAR and some other stuff, it worked out great,” says Hugel. “That made me realize that I could and should be doing more comedy shows.”
At around the same time, a record store called Steady Sounds was opening. Marty Key, the owner of the store, had asked Hugel if he was interested in putting on a comedy show in Steady Sounds’ upstairs loft area. Key told Hugel that show would be called The Midnight Suggestion and it would be hosted by local comedian Grant Mudge. As Hugel remembers it, his response was something along the lines of “I don’t know what any of that means. But sure, it sounds perfect!” This was the start of a monthly showcase that has continued to this day. Hugel explains that the show works because it is “low impact… [a] different kind of show.” It’s low key enough that if he, Key, or Mudge are busy on a designated date, they can always just “put it off for a month.” Steady Sounds’ loft space will comfortably fit no more than 35 people, so if the show features comics “of notoriety from out of town,” there’s a possibility of “60 people crammed up the stairs,” all for the love of comedy. The performers respond well to the intimate atmosphere–L.A.-based comic and master of impersonations James Adomian initially planned to perform a 10-15 minute set, and he was enjoying himself so much that he went on to do an hour and 10 minutes.
The Midnight Suggestion could be considered niche, and is even advertised as “The Most Awkward Comedy Show in Richmond.” The audience often consists of “two or three dozen die hard supporters.” “The fact that we don’t get 60 people there every time [shows that] Richmond comedy is not out of control,” he says. In order for the comedy community to grow in Richmond, Hugel states that he’d like to see “more booked shows” and more competition “on the level of what we’re doing on The Midnight Suggestion.” However, he remains primarily optimistic about the local comedy scene.
He is enthusiastic about the many open mic nights currently happening each week, which he describes as “a vibrancy of exicitement.” However, he believes Richmond to be a hard place to work as a professional comic. “If they want do it professionally, they have to move on,” says Hugel. Mentioning an up-and-coming Richmond-based comedian, Corey Marshall, who he’s been working with for years, Hugel states that Corey has “gotten so good,” and now he’s traveling to New York regularly, even landing a spot on Hannibal Burress’s show. “It’s awesome for him. But I don’t think he’ll be around here forever,” he admits.
“A couple years ago … I [told RVA Mag] there wasn’t a comedy scene,” he explains. “There were a lot of little things happening, but it wasn’t concrete. In some ways it’s changed, but in some ways it hasn’t… I’d like to see five of the best comedians doing something a couple nights a week. Then I would say there is a lot of comedy going on in Richmond.” For now, though, Hugel is doing his part to make sure that there is high-quality alternative comedy available locally on at least a semi-regular basis.