Jessica Henkin remembers Baltimore's comedy scene in the late 1990s. Not that there's all that much to remember.
"There was zero comedy going on, or if there was, it was either super-bizarre or fringe-y," says Henkin, 43, co-founder of the Stoop Storytelling series and a comedy practitioner in these parts for some 17 years. "The arts scene was very male and very music-driven. It was a lot of bands fronted by men. You mostly went to clubs, like Memory Lane and places like that, maybe the Ottobar. That was the, quote, 'Alternative scene.'"
Happily, what a difference a couple decades and a new millennium make. While not teeming or anything close to Los Angeles-level big, comedy in Baltimore has come a long way, with at least half-dozen performing spaces; a steady stream of comics and aspiring comics; and a nurturing environment that allows people to hone their craft, build an audience and maybe prepare for a shot at the big time.
"The comedians we've worked with here in Baltimore are awesome," says Josh Kohn*, performance director for Highlandtown's Creative Alliance, who often books local comics to open for the national acts he brings in. "It's not uncommon … for somebody to come to me and say, 'That was great, but I liked the opener better.' That happens almost every time I bring in a headliner."
Terry Withers — an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, whose alumni include Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Kate McKinnon and Ed Helms — joined the 13-year-old Baltimore Improv Group as its executive director nine months ago. Since then, he's increased the number of shows the group's eight troupes put on, and seen the number of people who sign up for classes increase steadily. The city, he says, has developed a comedy scene that's growing in both size — audiences of around 50 show up for some BIG shows, which is all their theater can hold — and stature. And there's tremendous potential for even more growth.
"The scene is growing, and I'm excited by it," Withers says. "We have a core of people who are developing their voices as comedians, as improvisers, while also developing their relationship with audiences."
Baltimoreans looking for a laugh have plenty of places to choose from. Magooby's Joke House in Timonium, the Baltimore Comedy Factory and the Creative Alliance often book acts with national followings, while venues including the Ottobar, the Crown and the Metro Gallery (all in Station North) offer frequent shows highlighting local talent. For improv comedy, audiences can choose between BIG, which found a permanent home in Remington's Single Carrot Theatre in September, and the Charm City Comedy Project, performing on the second floor of Zissimos Bar in Hampden — a space that was once a frequent stop for Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame.
"There are so many more comics now than there were six years ago," says Chris Hudson, 28, a Baltimore native recalling his early years of doing standup. "I think this city is a good place to develop your material, develop your voice."
Marc Unger agrees. At 51, he's a veteran comic who's performed in 42 states and co-owns Magooby's with his brother, Andrew. "Baltimore's scene has improved dramatically over the past several years," he said. "There's really been a renaissance in terms of the number of performers."
When it comes to improv — making short- or long-form comedy based on audience suggestions — Baltimore seems especially fertile. BIG offers multiple weekly performances for people who want to laugh, and classes for people who want to learn how to make people laugh. The Charm City Comedy Project, founded by two BIG alums, also gives multiple weekly performances.
And both groups stage annual showcases. BIG's 11th Baltimore Comedy Festival is set for July 31 to Aug. 6, while the comedy project's fourth Charm City Comedy Festival took place this month.
"Especially in this day and age, we really have to take every opportunity we can to laugh and to make people laugh," says Megan Wills, co-founder (with Keith Becraft) of the Charm City Comedy Project. "Baltimore is primed to laugh, and to create laughter, and that includes plays, standup, festivals, all of it."
Comics and improv performers say they value Baltimore audiences for both their enthusiasm and their understanding. Most of the venues catering to local talent are relatively small, with capacities between 50 and 75, which facilitates a bond between audience and performer. And unlike in larger cities, where the pressure on a performer might be greater, audiences seem more intent on enjoying themselves than being hyper-critical.
"Even for some of my shows that haven't been good, they're forgiving and they're supportive and they're fun," says Sheila McMenamin, 25, a University of Maryland grad who joined BIG about a year ago and has since started her own improv troupe, Toe Money. "I really enjoy the audiences here in Baltimore. There's always been an atmosphere of support."
A.J. McCombs, who works as a communications specialist for a government contractor and started doing improv about five years ago, lauds Baltimore for its "can-do" spirit.
"One of the big advantages to Baltimore is that, if you are entrepreneurial enough, if you are willing to work, there are stages to be found, or made, in this city," says McCombs, 28. "If you're willing to hustle, you can find a space where you can do a show, or you can make a space where you do shows."
Improv comedy in Baltimore is also becoming more inclusive, McCombs believes. In years past, he notes, it wasn't unusual for him to be the only person of color in a troupe.
"Oftentimes, I was the only black performer," McCombs says. "In terms of diversity, there were maybe six or seven of us, and that was it. Recently, I saw one troupe that had three or four black performers, which I had never seen before."
For comics looking to make the big time, Baltimore is not exactly the promised land, where success can lead to fame and fortune. But "you can use Baltimore as a base, and then travel as you need to," says Hudson, who has dreams of becoming a full-time comic some day (he works at a vegan restaurant to pay the bills). "My friends that are either making a living already or are almost there, they've moved out of Baltimore; they're in, like, New York or Los Angeles."
And as they wind down a successful run of one of their most ambitious projects yet -- "Unscripted," which takes impromptu sketch comedy to another level by putting on entirely impromptu plays that can last upward of 90 minutes -- BIG is showing no signs of slowing down.
True enough. Baltimore's comedy scene may not offer major-league, big-money and career-defining opportunities. But that too can be to a young comic's advantage, says Henkin, who has worked with BIG since she started taking to the stage to make people laugh.
"You're just taken care of, it's a very safe place to be," she says. "Baltimore really allows you to take risks and have fun and not worry that you're making an ass of yourself in front of someone who books for major Hollywood movies."
Where to find comedy in Baltimore
Baltimore Comedy Factory, 5625 O'Donnell St., 410-547-7798, baltimorecomedy.com. Upcoming shows include Dick Gregory (May 28), Bo Dacious (June 12) and Finesse Mitchell (June 2-4).
Magooby's Joke House, 9603 Deereco Road in Timonium, 410-252-2727, magoobys.com. Coming shows include Mike Finazzo (May 25-27), Vic DiBitetto (June 1) and Tom Cotter (June 2-3).
Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St., 888-745-8393, bigimprov.org. Baltimore Improv Group performances most nights. Upcoming shows include "Friday Night Laughs," "Two for the Road" and "Mona and Shara Swipe Right (or Left)" (all May 26), and The BIG Saturday Night Double Feature (May 27).
Zissimos Bar, 1023 W., 36th St., 443-741-2227, charmcitycomedyproject.com. Charm City Comedy Project performs most Fridays and Saturdays, with Open Mic nights on Saturdays.