It’s Knockdown Stand-Up Comedy Night at the Spot Underground. This quirky basement venue features twinkling lights, art installations and an eau de early ‘90s Seattle. Having inadvertently arrived ahead of schedule, your perpetually late columnist discovers that the more time you have, the more martinis you can drink. A band plays, a crowd gathers, and soon the evening’s host, Rob Greene, takes the stage. He wears the standard comic uniform: graphic tee, plaid button-down, facial hair. And within seconds, everyone is laughing.
That’s the beauty of a good comedy show. Sure, there’s a touch of the same anxiety you feel when watching a tightrope walker. Some jokes fall flat, and it’s awkward. But most comedy shows also involve bars. A few drinks in, you worry less, and everything sounds funnier. For the enthusiastic audience at the Spot Underground, everything sounds downright hilarious, especially when Greene hands the mic to Brian Beaudoin – a burly, bearded Coventry native with a style he describes as “aggressive pot comedy (something you don’t see everyday).”
Beaudoin, who recently won the title of “Last Comix Standing” at Comix in Foxwoods, proceeds to joke in a self-deprecating way about pot, poop, Planet Fitness, sex, stereotypes and his size. “For the most part, when I’m on stage, I’m just being myself,” he reveals later. “I let the audience dictate where the set goes. Sometimes I’m squeaky clean; sometimes I’m disgustingly filthy. I never know what I’m going to say before I get on stage; I just hope that when I get off stage people enjoyed themselves, put their daily stress aside for a little bit, and had a good laugh.”
Knockdown Stand-Up is the brainchild of brothers Dan and TJ Curran. The program usually boasts a visiting national headliner in addition to one or two local performers, and takes place once or twice a month. Dan and TJ are both popular comedians themselves, Dan with six years of experience under his belt. A month after his first gig at a dive bar in Johnston, the high school teacher won the “Catch A New Rising Star” contest at Twin River Casino and found a second calling.
Tim Vargulish is another up-and-comer who, like Curran, started doing stand-up six years ago. He has a unique style of sweetly earnest, deadpan delivery that makes you laugh before he even finishes setting up a joke. Based in Woonsocket, he regularly performs and racks up accolades throughout the area, including a turn as the comic in residence at Cambridge’s Comedy Studio last year.
All three funny fellows find inspiration for their routines in daily observations. Open mic nights, they note, provide the opportunity to try out new jokes and fine-tune old ones. Curran also inserts bits into conversations with friends to see which make them chuckle. He gives an example he jotted down recently, riffing off the idea of the last great age for birthdays being 21: “Maybe we should get more rights with age. Like, at age 40, you can drive 100 miles per hour on the highway. Or, at age 50, you are awarded a sword. Wouldn’t that be something? Knowing that someone is 50 because they carry their sword around?”
Curran continues, “The difference between a band and a comic is that everyone wants to hear the band’s hits. With comics, people never want to see the same thing twice. I often repeat jokes that I know usually work, but I also try to add a new joke in every time. I’m all set for my next show with that sword joke!” Beaudoin points out that it takes time and patience to find your voice and develop a style of delivery. A few flops along the way are par for the course, but they offer benefits in the form of lessons to learn and funny stories to tell. Vargulish, while calling his overall experience great, admits, “I’ve definitely had some awkward shows, including performing in a dog fashion show, at the end of an anime convention, and in weird bars with nothing but a few old, grizzled bikers out in the middle of nowhere. Those ones are the worst ‘cause you just get this strange feeling that anything could happen to you and no one would know it.”
Curran also recalls strained moments, like attempting to relay a joke while a death metal band played in the room above, or taking the stage right after the previous comic had a physical altercation with an audience member. He remembers feeling over the moon about opening for Bobby Collins at Showcase Live in Foxboro before a crowd of 600, but crashing down to earth at a tiny show the next day. He muses, “The thing about being a local guy or a name not many people know about is that you can do a big show like that on Saturday and then do a show in front of 12 people on Sunday. You can reach an ultimate high and get knocked down 24 hours later. It’s like a rollercoaster in the way it can be so much fun, but then out of nowhere makes you want to throw up.”
For most of us, the concept of standing onstage and getting laughed at is an anxiety dream of epic proportion. For these guys, hearing peals of laughter is the greatest reward. The challenges of the trade for them are handling rejection and staying motivated. They report few cases of stage fright, and claim never to imagine the audience in underwear. Wonders Vargulish, “How does that even help? If anything, it’d make me feel even weirder for being the only one not in his underwear.” Curran adds, “I often do picture them in something sexy though, like an owl t-shirt or an ‘80s prom dress.”
For up-and-coming comics in a small state like ours, gaining traction is tougher than it might be elsewhere. As Curran puts it, “There is a comedy club or show every other block in NYC. In RI, you have limited opportunities.” On the flipside, local clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Comedy Connection excel at supporting new talent. The smaller scene seems to yield a greater sense of camaraderie, as well as a spirit of healthy competition in which performers work hard and push each other to be better. Beaudoin observes, “I’m confident that no matter where somebody lives, if they are good enough, their big break will happen. It might take a little longer, and the approach might be a little different. But I believe anything’s possible. It’s just a matter of being consistent.”
At the Knockdown Stand-Up show I attend, everyone in the audience laughs loudly and often. Some of the laughs come cheap; others come courtesy of more clever social commentary. But the laughter itself, and the shared experience of being in a room together laughing, is the main appeal. Two martinis deep or not, I can’t help but feel uplifted. That’s what comes gift-wrapped in goatees and plaid shirts at good comedy shows, and it’s worth every penny.
Ready to get your laugh on? Up next at Knockdown Stand-Up, see headliners Yannis Pappas (May 11) and Dan Boulger (May 25). Watch Beaudoin perform every Friday at the Comedy Connection’s Hardcore Show. and catch Vargulish at the Empire Revue at AS220 (May 6). Feeling brave enough to give stand-up a whirl yourself? Vargulish also co-hosts a monthly open mic night at The Salon in Providence, with the next date set for May 28.