Every month, Virginia Wallis makes it her mission to prove stand-up comedians can perform in the noisy, preoccupied climate that is a brewery tavern.
That's where she and other comics have the Bulltown Comedy Series at Durham's Fullsteam Brewery on the third Tuesday of every month.
"It's going surprisingly well considering that I hadn't had experience with that type of thing before," says the Indiana-born, Durham-based Wallis, who took over the reins from original host and organizer John Sideris in 2013. "But I know the scene pretty well from being out there, doing open mics and going to shows. I was pretty familiar with all the local talent. All the other aspects—the planning a show—I taught myself to do."
Fullsteam wasn't the original home for Bulltown, which began in February 2012 at Durham music venue The Casbah, which became arcade-bar Social Games and Brews a year ago. Two years after its debut, Bulltown found a new home at Fullsteam. "I looked at a couple of different venues," Wallis remembers. "I had some friends who worked in the music industry and asked them for recommendations on a space. That's how I ended up going with Fullsteam."
Not much has changed in terms of bringing in comics, though. Wallis says they still get two drink tickets for doing their thing at a free show. However, some find doing stand-up there to be a bit challenging. "The high, echoing ceiling makes it tough because bad sound gives the audience permission to speak," Raleigh comic and Bulltown regular Shane Smith says. "In terms of vibe, people that were listening seemed cool, but I'm not sure if they were there specifically for the comedy."
Other comics agree on the room's, well, roominess. "Space is definitely the biggest issue—the room is huge!" seconds comic and former Raleigh resident Katherine Lloyd. "But when the crowd is with you, it's a lot of fun. It's definitely a challenge when everybody's playing Jenga, though. I'm exaggerating, of course. Everyone's playing Apples to Apples."
Wallis is well aware of the complaints, because she has them as well. "Sometimes, [the sound] doesn't get adjusted quite right and I'll try to change it, but I'm not a sound technician," she says. "And, then, [the space] is sort of echoey."
Wallis admits she hasn't gotten the hang of bringing in big crowds to the show. "Sometimes, it'll be packed and everybody will be paying attention ... but, sometimes, the advertising or whatever promotion I've done haven't brought the crowds in. Then, it is more of the comedians trying to get the audience's attention."
But the comedians understand that you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to doing a bar show such as Bulltown.
"It's like any alt-venue, in the fact that it's going to have things you have to overcome," Greensboro's Eric Trundy says. "In some rooms, you have the intimacy or the sound but you don't have the crowd or the lighting. It's always something."
Ultimately, the point of the Bulltown Comedy is to remind whomever shows up that there are many comics in the area, and they're ready to play anywhere to make you laugh—even a cavernous beer hall.
"The most important thing the public can do is to support live, local comedy—and to support, generally, public art," Wallis says. "Sometimes, it would be nice if they would listen and see what [the comics] are doing, instead of just playing some board game."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Frosty mugs."