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Knock, knock: At Magooby's Joke House, cultural change is a laughing matter

The open-mic comedy show at Magooby’s Joke House on a recent Sunday night was miles away from the male-dominated comedy industry of years past — with not just one woman, but four.

Chloe Mikala, a 2015 Towson graduate currently living in Washington, D.C., launched the amateur comic competition with a raunchy, biting set about sex, Tinder and condoms. And then: “Enough about men. Let’s talk about white people.”

Mikala, 25, and the two other millennial women that followed her left no holds barred. Then Victoria Harrison, a Kingsville resident and president of her Toastmasters Club, took the stage.

“Alright, how do you like those ladies, let’s give it up for the ladies!” Harrison said as the crowd applauded. But as for those explicit jokes told by the other women, Harrison said: “I gotta tell you, though, I have a very limited scope.”

The open-mic night was a microcosm of what Magooby’s owner Andrew Unger said is a changing comedy landscape.

American culture has seen seismic shifts in recent years: feminism, sex positivity, body positivity, the #MeToo movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the rise of Donald Trump. And Unger, who bought what became Magooby’s Joke House 12 years ago, has watched the comedy industry, known for toeing the line on cultural taboos, change alongside it.

“Things have changed,” Unger said. “Certain people are more sensitive to certain topics being discussed on stage.”

Ultimately, Unger and experts say, the only thing that is certain is that when it comes to what is funny, nobody can totally agree.

Knock, knock joke

Unger started Magooby’s in 2007 when he bought what used to be Tracy’s Comedy Club in Parkville. Unger’s brother, Marc Unger, had performed there as a stand-up comedian for many years, and Andrew Unger thought it had the potential to be “something bigger.”

“I found it difficult working for other people; I thought it would be better being my own boss,” Unger said. “I knew I wanted to be involved in something I’m passionate about, something that would motivate me to go to work every day.” He told the Towson Times in 2011 that the name Magooby’s is a combination of his children’s nicknames.

When the Timonium Dinner Theater went out of business in 2010, Magooby’s took over the space at 9603 Deereco Road.

The comedy club consists of a stage decorated in blue and red, surrounded by tables that seat as many as 350 people. Jokes hang on the walls — some not fit for print.

Even the drinks match the theme — cocktails with names like “Knock-Knock Joke,” “Screwy Light Bulb” and “Take My Wife” are all named after "classic bar jokes,” the menu says. The club also offers food like burgers, fries and chicken strips.

Magooby’s features professional comedians, typically Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $10 for some Thursday night shows and open mic nights. A standard ticket to well-known comedian T.J. Miller’s show goes for as much as $30. But buyer beware. Like some other comedy clubs, Magooby’s requires patrons to order a minimum of two items off the menu.

Open mic night is a “bringer show,” Unger said. That means performers have to bring five people to get five minutes of stage time. For each additional audience member they entice, they can get one extra minute, up to eight. About 100 people were in the audience April 7, many of them friends of the eight performers.

“It’s tough to bring people but it makes it profitable for us, and we have to make a profit to keep our doors open,” Unger said. “They’re ensured a good crowd, and we make money."

Unger said though it often changes depending on the act, Magooby’s draws largely the same audience it always has, “mostly working class people” who “skew a little older.” The average customer is likely in his or her 30s, Unger said.

And, count on a comedian to point out the uncomfortably obvious: “This is a predominantly white crowd,” said the April 7 open mic night host, Baltimore comedian Sonny Fuller. “You guys should have more black friends.”

‘If it’s funny, it’s funny.’

When Mikala got onstage at Magooby’s, she was taken aback. The actor, who is biracial, has been performing stand-up for a couple of months at home in D.C. This crowd, she said, was different.

“A lot of the crowds I had been performing for had been more people of color, and like, a younger crowd,” Mikala said. “I didn’t really anticipate a very older, white crowd. Which is fine, and I learned after that there is a way to negotiate around that, but I didn’t know in the moment how to handle it.”

Raúl Pérez, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Denver who studies the intersection of politics and humor, said the way a joke lands depends on both who is telling it and who is listening.

Is there a comedian, or a joke, that will get laughs in every case? “Probably not,” Pérez said. "Audiences are not homogeneous.”

Pérez said in his ethnography of a comedy school, he found that comics-in-training work hard to learn to joke about difficult topics based on who they are. A white man, for instance, has to tread carefully when talking about race or gender, Pérez said, and the most skillful comics who talk about race do “so much jujitsu to try to convince the audience they’re not racist.”

Unger said push-back from audience members, particularly young people, is the biggest change he has seen in his 12 years in the business; it’s a change he does not necessarily welcome. Today, he said, comedians at his club cannot “go into certain directions” without risking “offending somebody and being labeled racist or bigoted or some other term.”

“That would be the biggest change, the fact that there’s more sensitivity to certain subject matter,” Unger said. “To me, nothing should be off limits. If it’s funny, it’s funny. If it’s not funny and it’s offensive, it’s a problem. I’m not very P.C.,” an abbreviation for the term “politically correct.”

He said comedians tell him they worry about audience members filming sets, posting jokes out of context on social media that fuel outrage and put careers at risk.

Pérez said in his time researching humor, he has seen changes in the public’s reaction to jokes about issues like race. But ultimately, taking issue with targeted jokes is nothing new, he said.

“If you look 100 years ago at Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants, African Americans who were just freed from slavery a few decades prior, they were also making public challenges against being made objects of ridicule,” Pérez said. The difference today, he said, is that marginalized communities are gaining cultural capital, the ability to have their voices heard.

Some, like Mikala, disagree with Unger, saying that when comics have to watch what they say for fear of social consequence, that can be a good thing. She took issue, for instance, with some of the amateur comics at the open mic night who joked about fat women.

“We’ve grown as a society,” Mikala said, adding that comedians who want to tell the same old hackneyed jokes about women or people different than him “aren’t willing to grow and do the work.”

But white men aren’t just watching what they joke about; they are also making room for others onstage, Unger said. In his time in the industry, women in comedy have risen in profile and popularity, he said.

Open mic shows that used to feature solely men now have women in their ranks. Half of the performers on April 7 were women, and female headliners who used to draw scant crowds are now pulling in audiences at comparable rates to men, Unger said.

“There was this idea, not just among men, but women as well as men, that women wouldn’t be as funny as a male comic … that has changed,” Unger said.

Mikala hailed that change as a step forward, saying she simply finds women funnier. “Being a woman, or being a trans woman, is so hard and difficult you can’t help but find the humor in everyday lives,” she said.

“We definitely like diversity,” Unger said. “We don’t just want white, male comics. We want everyone.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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