How's everybody doing out there? Did you ever notice a funny thing about comedy in the Lehigh Valley? It's stronger than ever — with regular shows at the ArtsQuest Center, at the Allentown and Bethlehem Brew Works, the Ramada Inn of Whitehall, the Weaversville Inn, The Blue Monkey in Catasauqua and the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe.
Many comedians also appear at local colleges and fire halls. And big venues such as Easton's State Theatre, Allentown Symphony Hall and the Sherman Theater continue to host big names.
How many people here have been to a comedy show before? Raise your hands or shake your newspaper. If you haven't, you are missing plenty of local opportunities to laugh.
Comedy offerings have grown in the past year with the opening of SteelStacks in Bethlehem, where shows at the ArtsQuest Center have been a success, says Ryan Hill, ArtsQuest programming manager for comedy and cinema. The last three comedy shows have sold out there.
Hill says the typical audience member is about 30, but there is plenty of funny stuff for all ages. Every Thursday night is Comedy Night at ArtsQuest, alternating between "Two Laugh Minimum" standup shows featuring regional and national talent as headliners (the "two laugh" title is a takeoff on the traditional two-drink minimum requirement in comedy clubs) and improvisational comedy by The Associated Mess, a local company that Hill, a stand-up comic himself, manages.
The Associated Mess specializes in improvisation as popularized by the former ABC TV show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" It has 20 members, and a typical night features four performers and a host. The troupe, which also performs at the Allentown Brew Works every other Tuesday, mostly plays "games," where the host tells the group to improvise a situation based on suggestions from the audience. The Mess are a "short form" group, with sketches that are generally three to five minutes long. Three of the Mess also do standup, and most have a theatrical background.
ArtsQuest also presents the monthly "Pretending to be on Television with Glen Tickle," patterned after a traditional talk show and performed live, with featured guests and comedy by Glen Tickle, Pat Janessen and Jason Brown.
Most of the comedy shows take place in the Frank Banko Alehouse Blue Cinema, one of the ArtsQuest Center's two movie theaters, which has proved to be a great venue for comics, with its small stage and padded seats.
At the Brew Works, "comedy has been a phenomenal success," says Michael Fegley, marketing and public relations director.
The biweekly "Tickle Me Tuesdays" shows at Allentown Brew Works rely heavily on local talent, with up to seven comics, most doing short sets. The acts are, of course, not as polished as those you might see in the big city or on television. But the scene is more laid back, and the comics generally are more endearing for their lack of pretense. Heckling and drunkenness are unwelcome, and there is a chance you might hear something about your own neighborhood. And who knows, someday one of these guys or gals might become famous.
A dozen or so comics have worked their way up to ArtsQuest's "Two Laugh Minimum" from "Tickle Me Tuesdays" and from "Tickle Me Tryouts" at Bethlehem Brew Works, a comedy open mike on Sundays started by Randy Tonge.
The cream of Lehigh Valley comedy talent will perform on Jan. 24 at the fourth anniversary show of "Tickle Me Tuesdays," featuring headliner Myq Kaplan. Kaplan was one of the final five on NBC's "Last Comic Standing" in 2010 and has appeared on the David Letterman, Conan O' Brian and Craig Ferguson late night TV shows. Also on the bill is a Who's Who of local favorites: Host Randy Tonge and Steven Bost, who took over running "Tickle Me Tuesdays" from founder Hill last year; Glen Tickle; Dan Shelly; Tyler Rothrock, and Mathew Folger. The show benefits the American Diabetes Association.
At Bethlehem's Diamondz, an eight-member improv troupe called the Flighty Ducks presents monthly "long form" improv shows, offering 20-25 minute bits based on prompts from the audience. Ducks leader and filmmaker Dan Maher has made a number of short videos with the group that can be seen on YouTube and other web sites.
And the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe is premiering a four-part series of comedy shows on the last Friday of each month, starting with Keith Anthony Jan. 27 and hosted by Scott Bruce, manager of the WiseCrackers Comedy Club at the Ramada Inn in Whitehall.
Regular comedy rooms have come and gone in the Lehigh Valley over the years. Many of the major hotels have tried it at one time or another. Only Wisecrackers remains.
It began about 15 years ago under different management as the Comedy Blast. The location has been running continuously except for six months when new owners of the Ramada were waiting for a liquor license. This room, which seats about 140, is the closest thing to a New York or Philadelphia comedy club.
It runs Friday and Saturday almost every weekend — part of a chain of four Wisecrackers that books national and regional comics.
Manager Bruce says his acts love to play the Lehigh Valley. "In big cities audiences can be jaded, like they know everything, while in Dayton, Ohio, or Des Moines they don't see very much comedy. The Lehigh Valley is a happy medium, a perfect mix of the two," hip but not harsh.
J Creed has been booking comedy in the Valley at a variety of venues for about 25 years. On Jan. 28, J Creed's Comedy Spotlight will present a number of female comics, including Mary Dimino and Carolyn Busa. The restaurant is an intimate setting, with seating for about 100.
Creed may be the first promoter to book all female comedians. "I was told it would never work, and now everybody does it," he says (the Allentown Brew Works will be doing it in March). He has also recently created "Luck of the Irish" and "Soprano"-themed bookings. Lisa Lampanelli, who will return to Easton's State Theatre on Feb. 17, performed for Creed at the Klecknersville Hotel.
What is inside the mind of a comedian? The truth is, you don't want to know, but they do have goals and dreams. Randy Tonge, probably the Valley's hardest working funnyman, says he just wants to keep performing, a typical answer for those in this difficult profession. Actually, his first answer was, "I want to rule the f------ world," which is even more typical, but takes us beyond the scope of this article.
Tonge recently noted that he found a place to perform every night in the area one week. "You can't play for the same audience all the time, especially if they are local. You can repeat a great song, but you can only do a great joke maybe two times at the most."
Hill says comedy "combines social commentary and making people laugh. It says things that need to be said, about absurdities in our everyday life while still being entertaining." Says Bost, "I like to feel there is something universal for an audience, about interpersonal relationships that we all have."
This is not only a golden age for seeing comedy in the Lehigh Valley, but also for trying it yourself. It is no longer a rarity to see comedians mixed in among acoustic guitarists and singers at open mikes.
Tickle Me Tryouts at the Bethlehem Brew Works has just been increased to every week instead of every other one.
You do not have to pay to go onstage like you do in New York City or Philadelphia, and you are guaranteed to go on. "We've never turned anyone away," says Bost. "Having done my own act there, I can attest that this is an exceptionally tolerant and humane policy."
You can go early and ask hosts Tyler Rothrock or Dan Shelly to sign you up. Rothrock says, "There are a lot of talented people locally not getting a lot of stage time. The Brew Works is as good as it gets. People listen to you and you can get feedback."
It takes work, but as Bost says, "Comedy in unskilled hands is a deadly weapon. Crummy comedy is a blight." In a more reassuring vein, he adds, "The second time on stage is far easier than the first time. Once it's behind you it's not a hurdle, but more like a speed bump." His suggestion for continued success is "find your own voice, and don't fall back on tired material that you have seen everyone else try."
I'll end this story with a joke, as best I can remember, that Bob Newhart told to Johnny Carson on the latter's show some years ago. It perfectly explains the way comedians think.
A comic had just come off stage at a hotel when a beautiful woman approached him. She said, "I'm recently widowed, and you made me laugh for the first time since I lost my husband. I am so grateful. I would like you to come to my room to make passionate love to me."
The comedian asked, "Were you at the first show or the second one?"
Dave Howell is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
UPCOMING COMEDY SHOWS
•Tickle Me Tuesdays 4th Anniversary Show: Myq Kaplan, Randy Tonge, Steven Bost, Glen Tickle, Dan Shelly, Tyler Rothrock, Matthew Folger, 8 p.m. Jan. 24, Allentown Brew Works, 812 Hamilton St. Tickets: $5 donation to American Diabetes Association. 610-433-7777, http://www.thebrewworks.com. Shows are biweekly.
• Two Laugh Minimum: Jimmy Carroll, 8 p.m., Jan.19, Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema, ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem. Tickets: $10. http://www.artsquest.org, 610-332-3378. Shows are biweekly on Thursdays.
• The Associated Mess: Jan. 26 and Feb. 9 at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks; Jan. 31 and Feb. 14 at Allentown Brew Works. 8 p.m. Tickets: $8 at ArtsQuest; $8; $5, students at Brew Works. http://www.theassociatedmess.com. Shows are biweekly at each venue.
•Last Friday Stand Up: Keith Anthony, 8:30 p.m. Jan. 27, first of four-part series, Mauch Chunk Opera House, 14 W. Broadway, Jim Thorpe. Tickets: $18. 570-325-0249, http://www.mauchchunkoperahouse.com.
•J Creed's Comedy Spotlight. Girls' Night Out with Mary Dimino, Carolyn Busa and others, 8 p.m., Jan. 28, Weaversville Inn, 6916 Weaversville Road, Northampton. Tickets: $10. 610-502-9881, http://www.weaversvilleinn.com.
•Wisecrackers Comedy Club, JP Justice and Mick Thomas, 9 p.m. Jan. 20 and 21; Bill Garan and Mark Demayo, Jan. 27 and 28, Ramada Inn, 1500 MacArthur Road, Whitehall. Tickets: $15. 866-424-2411, http://www.wisecrackers.biz/allentown.
•Blue Monkey: Raymond the Amish Comic, 8 p.m., Jan. 20, 1092-1094 Howertown Road, North Catasauqua. Tickets: $15. 610-266-1550, http://www.bluemonkeysports.com
•Sherman Theater: Raymond the Amish Comic, 8 p.m. Jan. 21, 524 Main St., Stroudsburg. Tickets: $18. 570-420-2808, http://www.shermantheater.com
•State Theatre: Rodney Carrington, 7 p.m. Jan. 26 ($41.75); Jim Gaffigan, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 27 ($49.75, $39.75), 453 Northampton St., Easton. 800-999-STATE. http://www.statetheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times