When Eric Yoder moved to Chapel Hill two years ago, he was startled that the community was bereft of a stand-up comedy venue.
Although Carrboro has a healthy, established culture of sketch comedy and improv, thanks to Transactors Improv and the variety of acts at DSI Comedy Theater, Yoder felt there was something missing. "I didn't see anyplace really doing professional, national stand-up stuff," he says.
This didn't sit well with him, not only because he's a stand-up comedy fan, but because stand-up puts food on his table. For the past six years, Yoder has been handling club bookings for the Funny Business Entertainment Agency, an Asheville-based company that has been booking comedians for 30 years. On any given week, the agency will book comics in 60 cities.
Yoder went immediately to work looking to see if there could be a venue for stand-up in the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro area. He hooked up with Steve Brady, who runs a weekly open-mic night at Chapel Hill's Jack Sprat Cafe, to aid him with this. They eventually found a home in the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. "They were enthusiastic about it and it was a nice space," says Yoder. "So we decided it'd be a good place to bring some national acts through."
The ArtsCenter is located in the same strip area as Cat's Cradle, which has been a venue for many visiting stand-up acts. It has also been a venue for DSI's annual N.C. Comedy Arts Festival (which has booked Emo Philips and Louis C.K., among others, at the Cradle in recent years). But Yoder didn't think the Cradle was the right place.
"It didn't have as much seating. It was a smaller venue, and it wasn't really set up with the kind of stadium seating. And it didn't seem as intimate and comedy club-like as I felt the ArtsCenter was."
Nevertheless, Yoder has set up a monthly stand-up night called Funny Business Live at the ArtsCenter, where two comedians will perform at the beginning of each month. The headliner for the inaugural show this Saturday will be Kyle Dunnigan, a 13-year veteran of the stand-up scene. Cranky, fedora-wearing comic Paul Strickland will be the opener.
Some of us may know Dunnigan as Craig Pullin, the creepy, nerdy, pouty-lipped character he created while performing with famed improv company the Groundlings and has done on such shows as Reno 911! (where he played Pullin as a serial killer) and The Jay Leno Show. Dunnigan says the character is partly based on a shut-in neighbor he had, also named Craig. "I think Craig is just a horrible name," says Dunnigan. "I don't want to be called Craig." When I told him that the person who was interviewing him is named Craig, he responded, "Shut up! Is it really? I'm so sorry. I don't think I've ever said that out loud, and I just did to a Craig."
Dunnigan says this monthly event could have legs. "Part of the key is having young kids around," he says, "With all the social networking, I think things like that could happen very quickly."
As a comic who lives and does stand-up in Los Angeles, where both audiences and performers are eschewing traditional cover charge-and-drink minimum comedy clubs in favor of more alternative spots like the UCB Theatre and Largo, Dunnigan is finding that audiences want to see comedy, but in a different, offbeat setting. "That's happening more and more lately, which I think is a good thing," says Dunnigan. "Clubs are—I don't know, they feel like they're dying a little bit. And I feel like comedy nerds who really enjoy comedy, they wanna hear alternative stuff now."
For the show next month, the headliner will be Theo Von, best known for appearing on Road Rules and Real World/ Road Rules Challenge in the early '00s before breaking out as a stand-up. Biracial comedian Michael Yo will be the opener. There won't be a show in December, but Yoder is hoping to get Marc Maron, host of the popular WTF With Marc Maron podcast, for January or February.
The ArtsCenter has been burdened by financial and organizational difficulties in recent years, so officials are psyched about this new endeavor. "We have comedy here, and we have stand-up here,"ArtsCenter concerts director/ facility rental coordinator Tess Mangum Ocana says. "But this is stand-up of a really big, national stature. Kyle Dunnigan has been on all the big shows ... So, that's a big deal."
But it won't just be about bringing in touring comics to the Triangle: Local comedians will also be spotlighted. Carrboro comic Tom Keller, who won DSI Comedy Theater's title of Carolina's Funniest Comic in 2010, will host this Saturday's show.
In the end, as Yoder explains, it's just about giving stand-up comedy a proper venue in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community. There may be six open-mic nights in the area, as Yoder says, but there needs to be a spot for visiting comics to do their thing—and for audiences who love stand-up to enjoy them.
"I'm just a big stand-up comedy fan," says Yoder, "and when I moved out to Chapel Hill, I was really—you know, with all these people here, with the two colleges right there and everything else, it just seemed kind of surprising that there wasn't something just directly stand-up comedy-based, with all the other kind of entertainment going around. So, it's really just wanting to bring something new to the area."