If we were feeling morbid, we might hold a special memorial service for all of Charleston's bright young comedians who have moved on to greener pastures. Rest in peace, all ye sketch writers, stand-up comics, and improvisers. We hope New York and Chicago are the comedy heavens you hoped they'd be.
It's always sad to see them go, but it's never really surprising. As much as Charleston loves its comedy, for most, it's not the kind of place where you can make a living performing it. But if you ask those who've left, they'll tell you that it's the perfect place for fledgling comedians to get their start.
Evan Berke started doing stand-up as a freshman at the College of Charleston. He was living at College Lodge and Dusty Slay was hosting an open mic night right around the corner at the Upper Deck. He tried it out one night and was hooked. Pretty soon he was performing all over the Lowcountry, from Big Gun Burger Shop and the Music Farm to Theatre 99 and Jordan Amani's Chicken and Waffles. He quickly became a crowd favorite, and Berke learned to love local audiences.
"The audiences here give you an immediate response, and they are genuine when giving it," Berke says. "Charleston has been a very productive place for me to build and practice my routine, and I wouldn't have wanted to get started anywhere else."
On the other side of the curtain, he's found the local comedy community to be equally supportive. "No matter what kind of comedy you enjoy watching or performing — stand-up, sketch, improv, or music — Charleston has it all, and the established performers are always helping newcomers. If you want to get on stage in this town, there is no one stopping you except yourself."
Berke is hosting his final show in Charleston this week, after which he'll pack up his things and move to New York. But his decision to leave wasn't entirely based around comedy. "I just graduated college in May and want to keep developing as a person and experiencing new things," he says. "Charleston was a great place for me to attend college, work, perform, and make life-long friends — but I'm ready to start a career where I can positively impact people's lives on a large scale, so moving to a larger city feels like the right thing to do."
Derek Humphrey knew it wouldn't be easy when he gave up a well-paying job in Charleston to move to New York last August. "I knew I would be poor. I knew I would struggle. I know that it will continue to be that way for a long time, but it doesn't matter because I am doing what I love," he says.
And what he loves is stand-up comedy. Local fans got to know him on the stage at Theatre 99 and at stand-up showcases. But he always felt like he was holding back a bit because of his full-time job at a high-end resort. "I felt like it limited my art and direction," he says. "I wanted to remain loyal to them because they were good to me so I had to remain fairly politically correct. I didn't want to do damage to their reputation or to the money they provided me. And let's face it, that is the only reason people are politically correct or don't express their true feelings — because it costs them money ... So when it came down to keep my comfy job, the money, and the women that came with it or to be true to myself, I chose the latter."
While he sometimes toned his material down in Charleston, he credits the city for giving him the chance to develop a solid foundation as a comic. He performed often with various improv troupes and was a big part of the local stand-up community's grassroots growth. To Charleston's young comedians, he recommends doing as much as you can here before making the move — and to have realistic expectations about the world outside. "Charleston is the nicest, most pleasant place in America. That is a rarity, so develop a thick skin because once you step out of that bubble the world isn't so pretty," he says.
Humphrey now lives in Brooklyn. During the day, he works in a wine shop in Manhattan. After dark, he performs as much as he can — sometimes up to five times in one night. "Stand-up is king here in New York and no other place recognizes that the way New York does," he says.
Aspiring comedian Myles Hutto Armstrong tried out for Theatre 99's company twice, but he didn't get the gig. He was crushed at the time, but he learned to appreciate his failure.
"It was one of the greatest things that could've ever happened to me," he says. "It's what made me branch out and do stand-up." Within six months of his first open mic at Upper Deck Tavern, he was a finalist in the Charleston Comedy Festival's Stand Up Competition. "Not being a part of Theatre 99 is what made me push myself harder, and being that it was the only improv game in town, I knew I had to get out if I wanted to continue improvising. I don't just want to be a stand-up or an improviser or a writer. I want to do it all."
Armstrong has watched the local stand-up scene change dramatically since he started performing in 2009. "When I started out four years ago, it was mainly just a bunch of dudes telling jokes to each other in a dive bar once a week while hipsters tried their best not to listen while discussing whatever the fuck it is that hipsters discuss," he says. "That was pretty much it. Now I watch the news feeds on Facebook of my comedy buddies who are still in town and I realize how far it's come."
But, like most comics, he craved more, so he decided to follow the path of his idol Chris Farley to Chicago. "It is literally the Emerald City for someone wanting to do comedy. You can do anything here."
Two years in, things are going well for Armstrong, but they didn't start out so smoothly — at least not immediately. "When I first moved to Chicago, the only sure thing about my 'sure thing' apartment was that a cat had been living there and peeing ... a lot," he says. He ended up living out of a U-Haul for a few days before finding a new place.
Four days later, he'd moved into a new apartment and headed to an open mic night with his roommate. He had no intention of performing, but at some point during the show, the host got up on the mic and obliged some practical jokers who had put the name "Ben Dover" on the list. "Maybe it was the beer or maybe it was just meant to happen, but when the host called out for Ben Dover, I stood up, walked to the mic, and proceeded to crush it," he remembers. "Comics are notorious for not being the most supportive audience, but that night I turned that room upside down and it was magical. You hear about those watershed moments in comics' careers, and that was a moment for me that I realized that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and all the bullshit of being homeless and leaving a cushy job, family, friends, and a beautiful city had been worth it."
Within a month, he was accepted into Second City's conservatory program. He wasn't even supposed to be able to audition because he needed to take a few more classes at Second City, but he did what any good comic in his position would do: he improvised. "I told a little lie so I could audition," he says. He got in on the first try.
He found the scene in Chicago wildly competitive, attending open mic events with 60-70 comics waiting around for hours to perform for a few minutes. He was back at the bottom of the ladder but started working his way up steadily. He did his first hour-long set of stand-up this year. He helped write and perform two sketch shows and there's a third on the way. Now he's saving money to buy camera and sound equipment for his production company Myles from Ordinary. He plans to continue writing and to start directing and producing video. He's also working on his first comedy screenplay, tentatively titled Pipe Dreams, about two losers that find the only way to break their cycle of circling the drain is to win the local karaoke competition. "My ultimate goal would be to write, direct, and produce my own independent comedy feature film," Armstrong says.
John Brennan moved to Chicago back in 2006. After a few months, he decided that he could get the same experience at Theatre 99 and moved back to Charleston.
"I was just another white 20-something improviser who couldn't sing. I was like, wow, it's going to be really hard for me to even be noticed here," he says. So he returned to Charleston and started working on his show The Banana Monologues, which he's now performing off-Broadway in New York.
Brennan spent his time in Charleston developing his show with Jason Cooper and Mary Cimino, and he recommends a similar course of action for aspiring comedians. "If you're in Charleston and you're a comic, create a show that's your identity," he says. "I remember when I was 25, people said, what do you do? I said I'm an improviser. But I had nothing to show of what I actually did. I told people I was a comedian and an improviser and I had nothing to show for it. And that's when I knew I had to create a show that was me."
Though he moved to New York in 2009, Brennan credits the Holy City for giving him a solid start — which is why he still returns regularly to perform. "When I have new material, I like to go down to Charleston to Theatre 99 and perform for the public. It's great. If I'm working, writing, or still constructing it, it's better to do it up here [in New York] and then test it out there," he says. "Up here it's just in front of other comics. In Charleston, they don't care if it's improvised, stand-up, or sketch. It's either funny or it's not."
He decided to move to New York, he says, to be around other comedians — and to have some competition. "If you're a big fish in a small pond, you don't have to work that hard," he says. Moving to New York changed his work ethic.
"Other places ... you can do the same five minutes for years — and I've seen it. I've gone back to Charleston and watched the same people doing the same five minutes. I've been here a year and a half, and you're doing the exact same material. It's one thing if you get your rocks off on it, and good for you if you get your rocks off on doing the same five minutes. But if you want to know how to make it to the next level, you have to create new material."
David Lee Nelson moved to New York after earning a master's degree in theater from the College of Charleston in 2003. "Staying in Charleston really wasn't an option 13 years ago," he says. There were only a couple of community theater companies in town, and Theatre 99 was just getting started. He needed to get out, but these days, he may not have been in as much of a hurry.
"When I went to New York, I had just started performing three weeks earlier," he says. "I had to start from the bottom and fight my way up. But Charleston is such a better jumping off point now." There are companies like PURE, Threshold, and What If? where actors can hone their chops, a diverse and thriving comedy scene, and annual events like Piccolo Spoleto and the Charleston Comedy Festival. "Be a big fish in a small pond," he advises.
Nelson still returns to town to perform every now and then; in fact, he'll be back in August to star as Hamlet at the College of Charleston, then teaching theater classes at the college this fall. And there's a reason he keeps coming back, beyond the mild weather and good food. It's all about the audiences. At open mics in Charleston and even Greenville, he says, "the shows are packed with real people ... You never see that in New York. It's a complete anomaly. In New York, you're trying to find stuff that works and comics sometimes laugh at things that normal people find repulsive. I'm psyched about doing open mics with real audience members so you can gauge if the material works."
Nelson quit his day job in December to focus on performing full-time. He's currently touring The Elephant in My Closet, a show he wrote about coming out as a Democrat to his father. He'll run it until next spring and then spend the next nine months writing a new show.
And writing his own material has been the secret to Nelson's success. "Brilliant actors audition all the time and have nothing to show for it, but if I write my own stuff, at least I have something," he says. "I always tell people to ... write their own shows." Even if it's just a web series or podcast, Nelson emphasizes, having substantial original material can help you stand out. "There are no barriers anymore between the performer and the audience if you can find your audience."