Presenting the 9:55 Comedy Club: (from left) Michal Ketner, Jesse Jarvis, Irene Kuykendall, Betzi Hekman, Ray Bullock as Pooh Bear and David C. Wingfield Photo by Isaac Harrell
There's plenty to laugh about in Richmond.
"It's possible now in Richmond to see comedy every single night," says Ray Bullock, who started the 9:55 Comedy Club. "That means for aspiring comedians, they can perform every night if they want. When we started, it was just us, five people, and then about seven years ago, Richmond Funny Bone came to Short Pump."
The recent history of Richmond comedy troupes is similar to Russian nesting dolls, and the largest of the group is ComedySportz Improv ( comedysportzrichmond.com ), a team-style independent franchise outfit started in 1996. The company endured a 2009 near-death experience that forced it from its home at the Dumbarton Square Shopping Center.
Christine Walters, who directed ComedySportz through its troubles, explains that the organization is now a business partnership.
"I was done doing the way we were doing it," she explains. "Now with five partners, [that] makes it a lot easier to juggle."
ComedySportz specializes in shows that adults can take their kids to, without feeling that they're at a kids' show. "You'll neither be embarrassed nor disappointed," Walters says. The group will do more of its extended programs, like an earlier "Musical Matrix" and "The Empire Rocks Back."
The near future will bring with it scripted, theatrical productions. There are also workshops for both adults and school-age enthusiasts. "It's really great to take them to an improv class, but what you're really teaching them is communication skills. Just don't tell them."
Finally, Nigel Hines offers Spoken Word Blues Nights every second Thursday at7:30 p.m. and fourth Friday at 10:30 p.m.
Katie Holcomb received some of her early training in ComedySportz. After departing from the troupe's original location, performers were without a home.
"Improvisers were on the street corners with signs," she says. " ‘Will work for a suggestion.' It was sad."
Out of distress came some new funny business, the Richmond Comedy Coalition ( rvacomedy.com ), featuring members who've been onstage together since the ComedySportz days. Their motto: "Live comedy. Dead serious."
"We wanted to create long-form improvised shows," Holcomb explains. "We put together a core of experienced performers, added guest acts, stand-ups, and now we offer classes." They are held at the Carytown RCC Training Center, at 3324 W. Cary St. Instructors include RCC members Matt Newman and David Pijor.
RCC presents two themed shows a month at Gallery5 such as "In Your Facebook," which mines an audience member's Facebook page for comedy, and "CraigsList," taking improv prompts from descriptions of items and services.
The 9:55 Comedy Club (878-0918 or 955comedy.com ) knows about surviving the long haul — having outlived its place of origin, Chetti's Cow & Clam in Shockoe Bottom. The owner didn't want the troupe's comedy act to start until the credits for South Park began rolling, hence the group's name. The company also had stints at Chugger's (now Cous Cous) and Easy Street (Sullivan's). Today, 9:55 is a regular feature at Bottoms Up Pizza, which has weathered floods and worse. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
"We've been there five years now," says Bullock, who when starting out performed with ComedySportz. The club books one professional show a month with headliners and a once-a-month open-mic night for amateurs and veterans. For the 13th anniversary show Feb. 11, comedians from all over the country who started on the 9:55 stage are returning. In April, 9:55 will host "Ladies Night," a showcase of women comedians, and this summer, Bullock plans a revival of the popular Two Gentlemen of Lebowski play as part of a Big Lebowski festival.
"Not bad for something me and [co-founder] Betzi Hekman were going to do for a few months before we left for New York," Bullock says. Hekman moved to Raleigh for several years but returned to Richmond and is also performing with West End Comedy, started by comedian and improv artist James Wasilewski.
He knocked around stages in Richmond and Florida. He started making them laugh about 15 years ago at Ashland's Randolph-Macon College in a group called Random Acts and somewhat later with the Take 5 group. "My wife, Rachel, told me, ‘You know what you like and what you don't like. Why don't you form your own troupe?' "
In September 2010 West End Comedy (496-1714 or wecomedy.com ) began performing both family-friendly and "mature" shows at the HATTheatre and later at Richmond CenterStage's Rhythm Hall. "It was marvelous seeing our group's name on the marquee of that great new theater," Wasilewski says. (The next CenterStage show is March 16.) He draws a sharp distinction between the two audiences: "Don't bring the kids to the mature show."
For something completely different, Johnny Heugel's "Midnight Suggestion" series, started above Steady Sounds, is moving to Strange Matter in March.
Heugel came to VCU in 1998. "And then I really fell in love with the city and never left," he says. He branched out from music promotion because he thought Richmond missed out on some good comedic talent. This evolved into the present monthly events, making for an intimate experience. He's brought in New York-based comedians such as Ben Kronberg and James Adomian, the latter known for his podcasts. Upcoming on March 15 is Kyle Kinan, seen on Comedy Central and Conan.
Social networking makes advertising easier, allowing comedians to instead concentrate on being funny instead of taping flyers to storefront windows. YouTube allows troupes to use scenes of their work as promotion. Meanwhile, there's a person who must stand before a microphone to face down the preternaturally unamused and, of course, hecklers.
"There are a lot of people who really want to do comedy," the RCC's Pijor says. "And they'll take any opportunity to do that. But it takes a lot of persistence."