Monday, 11 April 2022 12:41

Learning to Laugh Together Again: West Michigan Comedy

Written by  Eric Mitts
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With the return of LaughFest this month, and the long-running Sunday Night Funnies late last month, as well as the opening of the Grand Rapids Comedy Club in January, and the sudden closure of Dr. Grins Comedy Club late last year, Revue decided it was time to get an update on the comedy scene here in West Michigan.

A Legacy of Laughter

The sudden shock of Dr. Grins’ closure – following the sale of The B.O.B. – shook the comedy community to its core, with an outpouring of support showing up for the Last Laugh Showcase back in December, before closing doors on Jan. 1 after nearly 25 years as Grand Rapids’ mainstay comedy club.

“The comedy scene in GR is very much a family,” Dr. Grins general manager Brian Palm told Revue. “Open mic’ers and professional comedians who live in the area saw Grins as their home, and a place to hone their craft. We had staff members that had worked for us for several years who loved their jobs. I had several regular customers reach out with their feelings of shock, but also of appreciation for the years of entertainment.”

Since opening back in 1997, Dr. Grins had brought in an epic list of big names, with everyone from Chelsea Handler and Bobcat Goldthwait, to Nicki Glaser and Roy Wood Jr. taking its stage. Huge comics like Bill Burr, Ron White, and Nick Swardson, among many others, performed surprise pop-up sets at the club as well.

Dr. Grins also hosted the annual Funniest Person in Grand Rapids Contest, which helped give countless local comedians a chance to expand their careers. 

“Dr Grins’ legacy will be one of consistency and community,” Palm said. “We prided ourselves in bringing in top-end talent year-round. Even if a customer didn’t know the comedian, they knew we were bringing in some of the best talent in the county every weekend. And we did it for a community that supported us and that we supported in return. Charitable shows, LaughFest, roasts, and even regular shows that helped others are what I hope most customers remember.”

Currently, Palm said Dr. Grins is undergoing the long process of finding and acquiring the right new location.

Another longtime part of the Grand Rapids comedy community, the Sunday Night Funnies, recently returned after a COVID-19 hiatus that began March of 2020 and lasted until now, aside from a couple special events. 

“The reason that I started Sunday Night Funnies back in 2008 was that there was literally no place other than Dr. Grins where local comics could perform,” said Sunday Night Funnies founder/emcee Brian Borbot. 

He started the weekly show originally in Douglas, Mich., before eventually bringing it to the Riverfront Hotel in Grand Rapids, and ultimately landing at Woody’s Pressbox inside the Spectrum Entertainment Complex.

“The Sunday Night Funnies was the very first show of its kind,” he said. “Nowadays, there are comedy shows almost every day of the week. It’s never been a better time for local comics to get up on stage, which is great, because the more shows they do, the better the comics will get.”

On March 20, Sunday Night Funnies will be a part of LaughFest’s 2022 return as well. 

“The Funnies has been a part of LaughFest since day one,” Borbot said. “The first year of it I had cancer, and was going through chemo and radiation treatments the same time the festival was going on. Getting involved with it helped me get my mind off what I was going through. I’m happy to say that over the course of all these years, Funnies has raised over $26,000 to benefit Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids.” 

New Voices, New Opportunities

One comedian who first came up through Sunday Night Funnies is Mike Logan. 

After winning tickets to see Joel McHale perform as part of LaughFest, Logan went up and did an open mic two weeks later, and got in contact with Borbot to perform as part of SNF.

“I came down, I saw a show, and then I thought, ‘Well, how easy is it to get into comedy?” Logan said. “The next night, I found out it was as easy as asking to go on stage. Which is what I tell everybody now to this day, because now 1000s of people over my career have come to me and been like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do comedy.’ And I’m like, ‘Just go do it!’”

Moving to Grand Rapids from Petoskey, Logan said he liked the city’s central location within the Midwest, which made it easy for him to begin to tour the region. Turning his hustle and talent into a career, he said the last eight years have been a blur as he’s had some luck that helped him skip steps in his rise to success. 

“When I started in comedy, Grand Rapids wasn’t this growing metropolis it is now,” he said. “It felt we were this hidden gem in this little city, and we had this cool comedy scene that nobody knew about.”

As he gained a reputation, first hosting an open mic at The Holiday Bar, then taking it over to The Garage Bar & Grill, Logan soon began to push for more diversity and inclusion in the ever-growing Grand Rapids comedy scene. 

“My first couple of years, because I’m new to comedy, I’m usually the only black person in the entire venue,” he said. “You don’t really speak up until you start getting some respect.”

Going on to book and host professional shows at places like The Knickerbocker, and more recently The Listening Room, Logan has made a conscious effort to bring more representation to the comedy scene. 

“Honestly, for people who look like me and like female comedians and Asian comedians, transgender comedians, these comics don’t get these opportunities,” Logan said. “In the position that I’m in, if I have the opportunity, I don’t see a reason to keep it to myself, or to keep booking the same act everybody’s tired of.”

Logan added that while later this year he plans to pivot away from standup to more social media work and vlogging where he feels he makes even more of an impact, he will still produce and take part in two shows as part of this year’s LaughFest: KaraJOKEe on March 16, and the All Ya’ll Comedy Showcase on March 19, both at Golden Age in Creston Brewery.

Entering the Golden Age

In January, Creston Brewery emerged as a new hotspot for standup, partnering with regional promoters Full House Comedy to create the Grand Rapids Comedy Club in its Golden Age space. 

Full House has been bringing comedians to West Michigan since 2014, when founder Don Veltman started hosting standup at Back Alley Comedy Club inside Sherman Lanes in Muskegon. He then purchased Howard City Lanes in his hometown, and booked more comics, when a friend at Rockford Lanes asked him to start something similar there.

“We had Josh Blue out there, and Pauly Shore; some really good shows out there,” Veltman said. “Then COVID hit, and comedy clubs, bowling alleys, bar-restaurants were the hardest things hit. So right when that happened, knowing that I own a bowling alley, I own a bar-restaurant, and knowing the difficulties I’m going through right now, and how difficult it is going to be to recover once things open up, at that point I started reaching out to some places that I had thought of in the past.” 

Veltman contacted Billy’s Lounge in Grand Rapids, the Park Theatre in Holland, as well as The Listening Room, and offered his past experience and connections in the comedy world as a way to regain regular clientele, and attract new patrons as restrictions started to lift, and things began to reopen. 

“You’re coming out of 18 months of really getting beaten down, and that’s tough,” Veltman said of trying to bounce back from the pandemic. “I know personally, my business was at the bottom of its reserves at that point. So to be booking bands and just hoping that people will come out — you’re putting that money out and hoping you’re going to get a return. Whereas, I go to these places and say, ‘Hey, I bring the comedy, you don’t have to pay anything.’ So it’s just a great marriage.”

Full House and the Grand Rapids Comedy Club are also currently running the Golden Ticket Comedy Contest, where comics will compete over a series of weeks for a climbing jackpot of $1,500 to $5,000, a future paid headlining slot at the club, as well as a trip to New York City, with the opportunity to perform at New York Comedy Club. 

“I’m not going to try to pretend that we invented the comedy contest concept,” Veltman said. “Grins had the Funniest Person in Grand Rapids in the past. We just looked at it, and thought about how we wanted to do it differently, and how we felt like we could make a bigger impact on the local scene.

“One of the things that was really important to me was, while the money’s great, these contests have gone on for a while in Grand Rapids,” he added. “And it hasn’t taken anybody to a national level yet, and it hasn’t because money isn’t going to do that. It’s exposure, ultimately.”

Bringing Comedy to the People

Outside of Grand Rapids, comedy has also started to thrive again as the pandemic hopefully moves into the past. Demented Peach Productions has taken a different approach with things reopening, by helping to bring comedy to unexpected locations around West Michigan.

“We want to bring the art and the comedy to people rather than making people come to us,” said Demented Peach executive director Jon Batchelder. “I love Grand Rapids, it’s my own my home city, but there’s an abundance of free and cheap comedy. When you offer somebody something for free, they’re going to expect that it’s free, right? What we’re trying to do is show that this does have value, and there’s something to that.”

Demented Peach cropped up last summer with an outdoor summer park series in Portage. The company — cofounded by Batchelder and his fiancé and director of operations Demitria Gavit director of operations — used the unique opportunity as a proof of concept for what they were capable of bringing to the community.

 “I remembered using parks quite a bit for events when I was working for some nonprofits,” said Gavit, who has a background in event planning. “So outdoors, parks, during a pandemic, everybody stays social distancing, you can BYOB, and it gave people a chance to start getting back to entertainment without feeling like they were sacrificing their health or their safety, or their pocketbook. And it gave a chance for comics to start getting some paid work.”

The company, which also includes Carl Sobel and David Steves, personally vets all the comics booked for their showcases, usually including four to six comedians per show. 

Currently, Demented Peach is focusing on outlining areas, including venue partners in Kalamazoo, Portage, Allegan, and Greenville, but hopes to add even more locations across West Michigan later this year, as well as booking independent homegrown Michigan headlining shows during a new summer series at Presidential Brewing in Portage starting in May. 

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had comics come up to me and tell me, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Batchelder said. “And we’ve received huge feedback from the people that have attended, who are very excited because live comedy can be such a crapshoot. So ultimately, if we’re providing value to other people, then we feel like we’ll continue to grow.”

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