A guide to who’s funny, where to laugh, what’s humorous and how to be funny in the 812
Surrounded by rolling hills, swaying corn and weather that switches three times a week sits a stage. A stage that’s drawing America’s funniest folks from the “Bob & Tom Show” to “Saturday Night Live” and launching the careers of local comedians like Ben Moore and Mat Alano-Martin. The Comedy Attic in Bloomington is only six years old, but is already reputed as a “destination spot” and an “A room” among the biggest comics, managers and agents in the business.
Then there’s the Peabody Award-winning NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” which takes place in Pawnee, based on small Southern Indiana towns. And during the first weekend of June, the Limestone Comedy Festival will kick off its third summer, pulling over 500 submissions from across the country of comedians vying for 40 spots alongside the season’s hottest headliners.
Chicago and the coasts may set the example in side-splitting comedy, but we’re literally and figuratively at the heart of it all. Southern Indiana isn’t just starting in on the laughs either—it’s building off a history that can be traced back to Vincennes’ Red Skelton, the iconic entertainer who traveled from vaudeville to national radio broadcasts to a 20-year TV show. And just last September, actor Kevin Kline, famed for his role in the crime comedy “A Fish Called Wanda,” noted that Brown County Playhouse is where he first learned he could be funny.
So pull up a chair—but hold off on the rotten tomatoes—as 812 discovers what it takes to make a living on laughs, uncovers the secrets to amusement, exchanges jokes with famous friends and invites you to try your own corn-fed comedy.
Living on laughs
Why this Bloomington-based comedian can’t get enough
Not everyone who does comedy is a comedian. But his tax returns say he’s a comedian, so for Mat Alano-Martin it must be true. “Of every 100 people that try comedy, only two or three get asked to do it where you get paid,” says Jared Thompson, owner of The Comedy Attic. In Bloomington, Mat is one of those few.
For most of his life, Mat, now 41, pursued music. He played in punk bands, folk bands and funk bands, but after a while it got old. One night while playing another show at The Bishop, Mat put down his guitar in the middle of a set and went home to be with his family. That week he did his first open mic comedy set.
Music wasn’t challenging Mat anymore, but comedy terrified and excited him. The first show he saw at The Comedy Attic convinced him he could get up onstage. He saw local comics performing in the summer finals of a contest and thought they were good, but not so good it seemed unreachable. Mat says if he’d seen Bill Cosby perform, he wouldn’t have done comedy.
Last October, Mat released his first comedy album, “Profiled as Such.” To celebrate, he performed at The Comedy Attic, flanked by pumpkins carved with his face and his name. By the time Mat hit the stage, the tables were packed. He was so overwhelmed by support from family and friends he forgot to do a few jokes he planned on telling.
Mat’s album is a compilation of the last five years of his work. According to Jared, creating a comedy album after six years is surprising. It takes most comics 10 years to build a reputation that sells albums, if they ever do. But Mat’s journey hasn’t been a cakewalk.
In the first six months after deciding to pursue comedy with the blessing of his then- fiancée, Danise, Mat quit twice. What he thought was great material earned him zero laughs. “You get over that stuff,” Mat says. “Your skin gets thicker and you get better.” Jared saw potential in Mat and moved him up from a host to a feature who gets a longer set, and Mat started taking his shows on the road.
Now he’s a full-time professional road comic, which means he’s in a different town almost every week, Thursday through Saturday and sometimes longer. It’s hard, and he misses his wife and two dogs, Schickele and Raylan. He says most comics believe they’re paid for the time they’re in hotels away from everyone they know. Mat doesn’t need payment for being onstage. Being there is reward enough.
His 30 minutes onstage, or 45 minutes to an hour if he’s headlining in a smaller town, compose a small percentage of the hours he puts in. Mat has to book shows, make travel plans, get to places he’s been booked and maintain his presence as an entertainer. “As a comedian you’re not only the CEO and the janitor, but you’re also the IT guy and the product you’re selling,” he says.
In addition, Mat now plans the Limestone Comedy Festival he co-founded with Jared in Bloomington and teaches a stand-up comedy class at Ivy Tech. While traveling, he’s constantly formulating new material and punching it into a running note on his phone.
“I pull my material from joke books, mostly,” Mat says. “From the Internet.”
Mat pulls material mostly from his life. When you see him perform, you can expect about 85 percent truth and 15 percent exaggeration. He’s not a cram-it-down-your-throat comedian but does include issues he’s passionate about like race and gender equality.
Above all, Mat pays respect to where he’s from. He grew up in a trailer park in Borden in Clark County and doesn’t appreciate the toothless, meth-head stereotypes sometimes perpetuated by other comedians. One of his favorite jokes is about Halloween:
“Halloween is the best holiday ever. For two reasons. Halloween is the only day of the year where a child can escape their circumstances through the power of their imagination and everybody plays along because it’s Halloween. It’s very empowering for a child. Reason number two: Halloween is the only holiday where it does not matter how much money your family has. As you long as you know where the families with money live, that’s all you need.”
If there’d been a comedy club in Clark County, he probably would have done comedy sooner. Little Mat was hammy. He’d repeat Bill Cosby’s Noah routine, listen to Dr. Demento and pretend to be Roseanne Roseannadanna from “Weekend Update.” He’d even sneak out of the bedroom late at night to watch “Saturday Night Live” as his parents slept on the couch in front of the TV.
Now Mat performs alongside SNL comedians like Tim Meadows. They spent a week in Louisville together, touring the city by day and lighting up the stage at night. Meadows starred on Mat’s podcast that week, “Strangers on This Road.” Mat has also performed on the “Bob & Tom Show” and the FOX TV show “Laughs.”
Though he’s away from home most every week, Mat doesn’t see himself quitting comedy. Being a road comic is a weird, nomadic lifestyle, he says. But he gets to perform everywhere from bars to comedy clubs to Meadowood Retirement Community. A joke that works for Mat is one that works on most of those audiences most of the time.
Mat says he doesn’t think he’ll know he’s “made it” until other people tell him he has. The challenge of doing new things in comedy, both creatively and on the business side, is what keeps him motivated as he waits for opportunities to do more national television and radio. For now, he’ll put in the hours he needs to book shows, travel and keep his website up to date. All Mat wants to do is perform live onstage, find his true comedic voice and make people laugh.
Southern Indiana’s most famous comedian
Red Skelton (1913-1997)
Comedian Red Skelton’s 50-year reign paved the way for entertainers after him and brought comedic significance to Indiana. For 70 years, Skelton performed across the country, entertaining three generations of Americans.
Skelton was born in Vincennes, July 18, 1913 shortly after the death of his circus-clown father.
He was raised by his mother, who worked at a vaudeville theater as a cleaning woman to support her family. The carrot-topped boy’s real name was Richard Bernard, but his friends soon renamed him Red.
Red sold newspapers outside the Pantheon theater to help his family, Anne Pratt, the director of marketing at the Red Skelton Museum in Vincennes, says.
While outside, he caught the eye of comedian Ed Wynn, who offered the eager redhead a free ticket to the show. “That was really the turning point for Red, when he fell in love with show business,” Pratt says.
Skelton left home at 13 or 14 with the Traveling Medicine Show and began creating the characters that would make his career: Clem Kadiddlehopper, the country bumpkin clown; Freddie the Freeloader, the hobo on the city street corner; Gertrude and Heathcliffe, two cross-eyed sea gulls.
Skelton’s big radio break appearing on “The Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour” as his characters led to his own regularly scheduled radio show. However, Skelton was drawn to the new medium of television, and premiered “The Red Skelton Show” on Sept. 30, 1951. After three years, the show was moved to CBS and ran for one hour, leading to the show’s new name, “The Red Skelton Hour.”
Skelton’s small-town American humor set him apart from many comedians of his time. Pratt says his Hoosier roots made him accessible. “Every person who comes into the museum talks about what a great guy Red was,” she says. “He never turned away anyone who wanted an autograph.” If Red was headlining a big show in Las Vegas and got word that someone from Indiana was in the audience, he would bring them on stage.
Over his career, Skelton performed in 43 films, and his TV show on CBS placed among the Top 10 shows in the country eight times. Although falling ratings ended his television career, he continued performing. In 1991, Skelton referred to his character Clem Kadiddlehopper as a “citizen of his Vincennes birthplace.” Skelton died in 1997.
Today the Red Skelton Museum pays tribute to him not only as an entertainer, but as an artist. “We want to preserve his legacy for those who watched him on television, but also pass it on to future generations,” Pratt says.
WHERE TO LAUGH
3rd Annual Limestone Comedy Festival
Southern Indiana’s celebration of laughter
June 4 – 6 in Bloomington
Cost: $75 for a basic badge that gets you into every headliner performance and after parties. Other badges and individual event tickets available.
On June 4 – 6, nine headliners and 40 up-and-coming road comics will pour into Bloomington to play to lifelong comedy enthusiasts and curious newcomers. The three days of Limestone Comedy Festival will be a whirlwind of comedians, mics and laughter across five or six stages. Between shows, comedians can mix and build both friendships and business connections. And at night, when everyone’s sides are aching from laughter, they’ll retire to nearby hotels.
The spirit of Limestone is The Comedy Attic on a grander scale. Even though the main stage, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, holds four times as many seats, Jared Thompson, owner of The Comedy Attic, wants to make sure the audience and comedians maintain the respect he demands at his venue. Jared and comedian Mat Alano-Martin co-founded the festival, which is in its third year. Every year, they spend over nine months planning for three days of fun. Last year, 999 people attended.
The name Limestone is, of course, a nod to Southern Indiana, but the comedians and audience come from all over the country. Mat and Jared have booked nine headliners and will release the names as a “leak of the week” starting Jan. 1. Last year’s headliners included Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Pardo, The Legendary Emo Philips and Bloomington’s own Ben Moore. Forty other comics, chosen by a panel of judges, performed alongside the headliners. Submission spots are competitive because comedians can build relationships with headliners and learn from them, an access Jared says is rare at other comedy festivals.
Mat says that Limestone now competes with festivals in Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles in size, just in a smaller town. Comics are treated with respect and get into every show free. Mat has performed at festivals where he slept in his car after his set because he couldn’t afford either a hotel room or the headliner show across the street.
A frequent performer at Comedy Attic open mic nights, Mitchell Potts was thrilled to work Limestone last summer, watching comedians he admires and being a part of the crowds. He says he can’t remember a better weekend. “Comedy can be this draining, soul-destroying thing sometimes because you do so many shows in bars and terrible open mics where crowds don’t care about you, comedy or the show in general,” Mitchell says. “So it was absolutely fantastic to see shows at Limestone where the crowds care about comedians and comedy.”
Places you can split your sides year-round
Hoosier Hub: The Comedy Attic
123 S. Walnut St., Bloomington
Show times: 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Open Mic Nights 8 p.m. Wednesday
Hailed as one of the top 10 comedy clubs by USA Today and more recently by Travel and Leisure, The Comedy Attic is Southern Indiana’s humor hot spot. Owner Jared Thompson has developed a keen sense of who’s funny, booking nationally acclaimed comedians sometimes before they make it. When top-lists of comedians come out, chances are The Comedy Attic’s already hosted 80 percent of those funny folks live. Shows here are not just about the audience getting a snapshot of what’s happening in comedy, but they’re about giving comedians an opportunity to relax and enjoy their job. If you want to try your hand at stand-up, the Comedy Attic’s open mic nights are the place to do it. Local comedians get five minutes of fame and never leave the stage without applause. Jared has worked hard to make The Comedy Attic one of the most respectful, and therefore respected, venues. “We don’t really care about making money,” Jared says. “Which is bad for a business model, but it’s good for the shows.”
On the River: Main Street Comedy Pub
Find Main Street Comedy Pub on Facebook
217 Main St., Evansville
Show times: 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Open Mic Nights 8 p.m. Thursday and Sunday
Country comedian Eddie Caylor called this venue “the little club that could and did.” Originally called The Joke Factory, the venue changed hands last February and is now the Main Street Comedy Pub. Located in the historic Downtown Main Street District of Evansville, the Pub boasts an almost-view of the Ohio River and hosts stand-up comics two nights a week. It is the only comedy club in the Evansville area—and they’re OK with that. Owner Matthew Rideout says his club is one of the only small privately owned rooms left for comedy. It can seat 72, and the small, intimate atmosphere gives comedians a chance to be more involved with the crowd. Every weekend the club hosts a new comedian, usually someone who’s on the verge of moving up. Because of Main Street Comedy Pub’s exclusive claim on the Evansville area, seats fill up quickly, so be sure to make reservations.
Something Different: Brown County Playhouse
70 S. Van Buren St., Nashville
Show times: Depends on show and season
Brown County Playhouse started with a performance in an open-air barn in 1949 when A. Jack Rogers and Professor Lee Norvelle, director of University Theatre at Indiana University, decided they needed a local non-profit theater. Their first production was “The Old Soak”by Don Marquis, a comedy about a drunk. Although Brown County Playhouse is now a 425-seat enclosed venue that hosts a diverse range of events, ticketing and marketing director Suzannah Zody says they’ve stayed true to their roots, hosting stand-up comedians, comedic plays, humorous dramas and farces. If you want to watch the wit unfold in a series of acts, be sure to check out this Nashville gem. “We have found that comedy sells very well with the tourist and local audience at the Brown County Playhouse, but we also like to present challenging and thoughtful work,” artistic director Ian McCabe says. “The audience leaves the theatre not only entertained, but affected.”
Moira Marsh takes comedy seriously
Indiana University’s folklore librarian studies our amusement
An hour and a half into our interview about what’s funny, Moira Marsh and I both seem to have more questions than answers. The basics have been settled. Almost.
1. Amusement is a better word than humor. Amusement seems to happen naturally. But it’s not a reflex.
2. Jokes that are racist or obscene are “off the table.” Unless they’re told the right way. Or to the right audience.
3. Wrapping someone’s office chair in aluminum foil is offensive. But tin-foiling everything down to individual paper clips is hilarious.
It turns out there’s no straightforward answer to what’s funny. Funny is something you decide for yourself.
However, there do seem to be some universal concepts of amusement. For instance, tin-foiling someone’s office. The more effort a prankster puts in, the more likely a prank will be found funny.
As a folklorist, Moira’s job is to study how amusement works in specific settings. Her personal interest lies in practical jokes and relationships. This summer, Utah State University Press will publish her book, “Practically Joking.”
She says amusement is important to our social and psychological health. Shared jokes build solidarity. Taking others’ perspectives can be pleasurable. And someone’s favorite joke may be the key to his or her personality.
That’s why Moira wouldn’t share hers.
Moira believes the benign-violation theory of amusement is most accurate. We think something is funny when it violates a rule or norm but doesn’t go far enough to offend us.
If Moira told me her favorite joke she’d be taking a risk. If I didn’t find it funny, she’d have gone too far. Maybe I wouldn’t laugh.
Or perhaps I would, precisely because I shouldn’t. Amusement’s kind of funny that way.
Look for “Practically Joking” this summer to learn more about Moira’s take on amusement and get some ideas for future April Fools.
Other theories of amusement
Superiority theory: We are amused because we see ourselves as better or more intelligent than the subjects of the joke.
Inferiority theory: We are amused because we recognize our own failings and inadequacy in the subjects of the joke.
Relief theory: We are amused because we find release from excess tension in the conclusion of a joke.
Play theory: We are amused because the element of play in the joke is understood and therefore we don’t take it seriously.
Six steps to improv comedy
How university students practice being funny on their feet
Founded in 1994 by Indiana University alumni Derek Miller, Full Frontal Comedy celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, making it IU’s longest-running comedy troupe. The troupe embodies “Chicago-style” improvisation with their own games thrown in for audience involvement. Senior troupe member Nick Haddad, who has been performing with FFC since his sophomore year, shared with 812 insider tricks for being successful at improv and why he doesn’t want it to be compared with stand-up comedy.
Despite popular belief, the best character in an improv scene isn’t the person who has the most funny lines. “The first word of improv is unspoken,” Nick says. Before going on stage, the troupe always groups up and repeats their motto, “Slow down, shut the f@#$ up and be awesome.” According to Nick, “If you’re out there talking the entire time, you are kind of steamrolling the scene.”
In improv, adaptability is essential. “If you’re up there thinking, ‘What am I gonna say next, what am I gonna say next,’ then you’re going to miss it. In the time it takes for you to think of a response to something that happened, the scene could already be miles past that,” Nick says.
Nick always enters a scene with the same goal in mind, to get the audience invested. “My favorite sound that the audience makes isn’t when they laugh, but when you hear the whole front row go ‘Awwww.’” This emotional investment makes the audience vulnerable. “When you sense they care about the person you’re playing or they care about the person you’re being mean to you want to twist the knife a little bit and just kind of see how far you can go to get an emotional reaction out of them,” Nick says.
Each year, FFC holds a two-day audition process to find new members. Prior experience isn’t required, but current members look for stage presence, ability to perform a character and personality. “The people you improvise with are like your second family,” Nick says. In order to understand what direction someone on stage is going to take a scene, each member has to understand the troupe’s group mind. Nick chooses new members on how well they “mesh,” he says. “You can teach someone the fundamentals or the basics, but you can’t really teach someone to be a nice person.”
Performing in a few stand-up open mic events himself, Nick understands the difference between improv and stand-up. “When you go see a stand-up comic, it’s going to seem all natural. They’ve practiced that story over and over and over again to get it down perfectly.” It’s possible to perform onstage for an improv troupe without any material in mind. “You don’t know what you’re going to say and a lot of times if you try to come out with an idea or a premise, that could cause you to mess up,” he says.
SO YOU THINK YOU’RE FUNNY?
After reading about these Southern Indiana comics, maybe you think you’ve got what it takes. We collected from all our interviews a list of five steps to get you started. As Red Skelton would say, “Goodnight and may God bless” as you pursue your own corn-fed comedy career.
1. An Inspiration. Find people you think are funny and watch them or listen to them. A lot. Browse YouTube, follow podcasts and attend open mic nights. Jared Thompson says if you know what’s funny, then everything that comes after can be learned. The No. 1 trick for being a successful comedian is to watch comedy.
2. A character. Your character doesn’t have to be someone crazy. Your character could be yourself. But if you want to act like someone else, the stage is a good place to do it. Audiences crave variety, and in comedy even awkwardness can be an asset.
3. An idea book. Write down anything that comes to mind. Mat Alano-Martin says sometimes jokes will come to you fully formed and sometimes you’ll have an idea you need to work on for a while. Carry a small journal with you or keep a note open on your phone so you don’t forget what you found funny.
4. A YouTube channel or podcast. Choose what makes you most comfortable. Do you like being in front of a camera or would you prefer for your audience to just hear your voice? By building a brand for yourself online, you can develop a fan base and work on your material.
5. Guts. Not everyone will think you’re funny all the time. You’ll flop every once in awhile. If you’re serious about comedy, just keep trying. Keep going to open mic nights or try out for an improv troupe if that’s your thing. Nick Haddad says practice helps you work all weird stuff out.