Big Laughs, Little Lafs

Photo by LeeAnn B. Stephan
Maggie Shipley, left, and JP Leonard see nowhere to go but up for Lafayette's booming comedy scene.

JP Leonard still worries. As founder of the 3-year-old Lafayette Comedy booking brand, Leonard fosters local talent while bringing national comedians to perform in a smaller-than-usual market. Some of those national acts who have performed in Lafayette Comedy’s short lifespan include Brian Posehn, Tom Segura, Doug Stanhope, Kyle Kinane, Jen Kober, Shane Torres, and “Saturday Night Live” alumni Shaseer Zamata and Brooks Wheelan. Those bigger names will continue to visit, too.

At the same time, Leonard has run a weekly open mic comedy night at The Wurst Biergarten, allowing local comedians to work through their material. Though Leonard won’t take credit for it, Lafayette’s own Maggie Shipley is quick to praise Leonard for his help in building and nurturing the comedy scene.

“[Leonard is] the one who is guiding young comics on how to get their foot in the door,” she says. “If you have a question, he will answer it. He’s very helpful. He has gravitas.”

Now, Lafayette boasts regular comedy events from open mics to national showcases. The average attendance for a headlining show is 200 people. Around 90 percent of those shows have sold out. On top of that, Lafayette Comedy has brought themed trivia nights and specialty shows to town. Comedy is alive and doing well in Lafayette, a city off the beaten path for stand-up.  

Despite that success, Leonard always has nerves when he books a comedy show in Lafayette.

“I’m still not convinced it works,” Leonard says with a laugh. “I’m still surprised with some of the shows and how many tickets sell. Anytime I book someone, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Though Lafayette Comedy officially started in 2015, Leonard began working with comedians in 2014 while booking bands for the now-closed Johnston Street venue, Poets. After meeting a few New Orleans comedians, Leonard got the idea to bring that talent a couple hours west for a monthly comedy showcase. Bringing comedy to Lafayette also gave Leonard the opportunity to try out his own material.

“I’ve always loved stand-up comedy,” Leonard says, mentioning how he would listen to comedians like Dave Attell and Mitch Hedburg. “I never knew of any place to do it. I had played music for so long that I never chased comedy. I maybe saw comedy once in Baton Rouge, other than going to see headliners in New Orleans or Houston. I didn’t know if it was around in Lafayette.”

Brian Posehn performed two sold-out shows, presented by Lafayette Comedy, in August.

Bringing bands to Poets wasn’t quite successful, so Leonard started hosting Friday night open mic shows with added, booked talent. Around the same time, a Sunday open mic started down the road at the now-closed JP’s. However, Leonard was quick to notice that the same comedians were performing both showcases, every week. With a little budget and some networking, he began building shows with touring acts performing first, followed by an open mic. Any money he made, he used to bring in the next person.

“I could bring comedians from New Orleans, and there are so many shows there — a lot of them are free, and those comedians don’t make any money,” he says. “People were coming here to make money. That was great. That helped build a scene. I had shows where no one showed up, and I just went to the ATM. But the goal was always that I needed to break even.”

Within months of booking comedy shows, he began working with out-of-state talent, some of whom had agents, contracts and what he calls “all that legal stuff.” Leonard was no longer booking shows for his own amusement. This was a serious business. By 2015, Lafayette Comedy was born. In February 2015, Leonard was bringing in names like Segura, Posehn and cult icon Emo Phillips.

“These are people who I love, and I love their material,” Leonard says. “If you treat them right, and everything’s professional, they’ll keep coming here.”

Now, three years later, with more experience and a brand/business under his belt, Leonard breathes easier. That Brian Posehn show, for instance, sold 200 tickets in less than a day.

“I thought we were hacked,” Leonard says. “So we said, ‘let’s add a second show.’ It took two weeks, then we got a second Posehn show confirmed. Through two shows, we put almost 500 people through [Club 337].”

Once the name talent started showing up, the shows — the talent, the crowds and the volume of both — got bigger.

“After that first year, when I had booked like 20 national shows here, after that, I started getting people calling me,” Leonard says. “When other people start hitting me up, and say, ‘So-and-so told me about you,’ that’s great. I’m still in awe when it goes well, when people find out that a comedian is coming. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. But sometimes, it’s all right, you know?”

The secret to open mic success. Don’t throw up. Don’t fall down.

The health of an open mic scene in any city is hard to judge. Local comedy is hard to sell. Open mics can be hit or miss in terms of quality and attendance. Automatically, the biggest factor comes down to if the performer is or isn’t funny. Over the past year, several open mics have popped up at The Platform at Dat Dog, and Bisbano’s Pizza Parlor, on top of Leonard’s regular spots at The Wurst. By proliferation, open mic comedy seems to be doing just fine, giving locals a shot at the mic and even a chance at opening for those visiting headliners.

Ask Leonard to rattle off Lafayette comedians to check out, he can instantly name a handful: Vaughan Veillon, Ken Edwards, Joey Thibodeaux, Shelby Shone, Lindsey D’Anna, Isiah Benjamin and Shipley.

Shipley started performing at open mics around the same time Leonard built his Lafayette Comedy brand. Her hustle on the comedy scene has led to opening for national comics like Nate Bargatze as well as hosting her own monthly open mic, Pretty Funny Comedy, at Bisbano’s.

A Lake Charles-born Louisiana Tech graduate, Shipley had always been interested in stand-up comedy. She told herself that if she ever got the chance to perform, she would look into it. Three years later, she still vividly remembers her open mic debut.  

“The first open mic was a perfect little trash fire,” she recalls. “I got a little too drunk, then I freaked out when I heard my voice over the speaker. My voice got stuck in this Southern accent, and I couldn’t shake it. My brain turned into a feedback loop, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“But I didn’t throw up. I didn’t fall down. I didn’t cry. That was a success.”

Her first year she felt good about performing at open mics. But now, looking back on her earliest stuff, Shipley groans. By 2016, she started digging deeper, past her comfort zone of random absurdities.

“I was making myself write things that were more personal,” she says. “When I started, I kept it clean and close to the vest. I didn’t mess with this weird personal stuff. Then, I went into these old notes I had written before I started doing open mic. It was stuff that was very against brand to anyone who knew me. It was sexual and cerebral. It became some of my best material.”

Over the past two years, Shipley’s confidence in her material has grown. From afar, it’s easy to say, “Hey, she’s doing it. She’s a comedian.” But what passers-by don’t see is the in-between — the bombing on stage, the consecutive bad nights.

Maggie Shipley works The Wurst Biergarten.

“The first five times you bomb, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” she says. “If you don’t run away, if you get through it, you’ll live through silence or pity claps, and you just tell yourself, ‘Well, that happened.’ But then you have one incredible set, and you remember why you like to perform stand-up.”

Shipley knows the spectrum of audiences at comedy shows. Sometimes, it is the comedian’s fault — poorly telling a poorly-written joke. Other times, a comedian can say anything, and the crowd will laugh at everything.

“You’ll tell your most mediocre jokes, and you know in your head that you could have told those better, but you will totally murder,” she says. “Eventually, your brain will come around, and you’ll accept that you don’t have that much control.”

On the other side of the spectrum, a comedian could perform to a room of people who are just having a bad day, not laughing, and “there’s nothing you can do about it,” she says.

“When you can accept those situations, when you have a cold room not responding to anything, it gets really funny in retrospect,” she adds.

As Shipley started performing in 2015, Leonard was also working on his own stand-up material while figuring out how to bring more national comedy to Lafayette. Leonard knew the pressure of being on stage, playing guitar and bass in bands for nearly 15 years. He had played in acoustic and full bands. He had played casinos, weddings and to thousands at a Mardi Gras bash in New Orleans. But comedy is a different beast.

“I’ve never been as nervous as the first time I did stand-up,” he says. “Even if you’re a solo musician, you have a guitar that can fill the void. In comedy, it’s one person with a microphone, and everyone’s looking at you. When that doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.”

Nowadays, Leonard works clean — PG-13 subject matter and no f-bombs. When he brings in national acts, he feels responsible for hosting the show, kicking off the night and making everyone feel comfortable before a few openers and the headliner. Those gigs in front of the more established comedians have been some of Leonard’s most successful sets. In front of Stanhope’s crowd, he did an entirely clean 15 minutes — something he thought fans of Stanhope, a bawdy comic, would hate.

“When I got off stage, I never had so many people want to talk to me,” Leonard says of opening for Stanhope. “That’s easily the most scared I’ve ever been, because die hard Stanhope fans, they’re going to raise hell. Stanhope loves it; he encourages it. But I didn’t curse at all, and I won them over.”

JP Leonard, the dreamer behind Lafayette Comedy

While opening for Posehn, Leonard did two sets about his dad’s deteriorating health.

“I did my first five minutes about my dad dying,” he says. “You feel the crowd go, ‘What?’ And whatever I did out of it, turned funny. They were with me start to finish, both shows. The second set was even better. It was a win.”

Leonard’s worst sets have been, thankfully, out of town. He jokes that he had one such set at a basement bar in Pensacola, Fla. But even those experiences help, and he can give that advice to other comedians.

“It takes one person to laugh to get the crowd laughing,” he says. “It takes one person not to laugh to make no one laugh. You have those nights, no matter what you do, and people are just like, ‘Ugh.’ That’s just human nature.”

Leonard and Shipley have also both hosted open mics, serving as a transitional voice between locals cutting their comic teeth. Hosting open mic shows has another, different set of rules.

“As host, I need to go up and be good enough to get laughs, but not so good that I set the bar too high for the next comic,” Shipley says. “If the room is cold at the start, I don’t want to bring the first person out and set them up to fail in the other direction, so I address my failure. I’m putting it on me, not on them.”

Outside of the occasional, overconfident drifter who signs up to perform or a laughless audience, open mics can be innocuous. Moreover, open mic nights in Lafayette have built-in support from the other local comedians who get a little time to do what they love.

“You just don’t know what you’re going to get,” Leonard says of the open mic comedians. “You’re dealing with people, and you give them a microphone. That’s the scariest thing.”

Lafayette Comedy hits the road

As 2018 closes out, the regularity of comedy in Lafayette shows no signs of slowing. On Saturday, Dec. 1, Lafayette Comedy will host Jazz Cabbage, a monthly showcase of Southern comedians, at 8 p.m. at The Wurst Biergarten. Later in December, Louis Katz will perform. At the top of 2019, Matt Braunger will headline a show at Club 337 inside the Doubletree Hilton Hotel.

When thinking about the range and number of shows, New Orleans comic Andrew Polk describes the Lafayette comedy scene as “a well-oiled machine.” Polk credits Leonard and Lafayette Comedy for cultivating that scene.

“I love shows in Lafayette because you can feel the energy and appreciation from the crowd,” Polk says. “They’re elated that something is happening there, that five to six years ago, they would have had to go to Houston or New Orleans to see. It’s a great thing for Lafayette, or any place, to be able to take pride in their creative arts and for them to be accessible.”

When Polk started performing in 2011, he noticed a few comedy shows and open mics scattered around town. Now, seeing the growth of the scene in south Louisiana is only validating.

“That growth is a testament to how hard the comics in these scenes work and the demand audiences have for comedy,” he says. “Fans and comedians know it exists there, and that’s a great start.”

Tim Smith, a 31-year-old comedian who moved from Baton Rouge to Chicago to pursue stand-up, only has good memories of performing in Louisiana.

“It was fun because you would have people there,” Smith says. “Up here, you can go to several mics, and it’s you, the bartender and only the other comics in the room. And those comics are all looking at their notebook. There is so much comedy here.”

Smith has been in Chicago for the past two years. Performing in Baton Rouge and Louisiana had its perks — if someone new showed up, and they were decent, the other comics and the crowd were decent to him, he says.

“I’m out six nights a week,” he says. “Nobody remembers your name until you’ve been doing it regularly for eight months. The first time I performed here, I was shaking. You’ll be at 15 different mics, and you’re the new guy. I was scared shitless for a really long time. But it gets small. There are a lot of people who do it and never come back. You keep doing it, and people drop off. The scene constantly changes and evolves.”

Smith’s hard work has paid off. He’s performed a couple of week-long stints at Zanie’s, a legendary Chicago comedy club with a 40-year history. But whatever good that comes with those shows, he gets a taste of reality the next night.

“There are levels to this, a lot of them,” he says. “I’m at a very low level at all of this, but it’s a ton of fun. I’ve learned a lot, found new stuff, but it’s very humbling. That’s important.”  

Moving to a city known for comedy like Chicago isn’t on Shipley’s to-do list, at least for now. Her goal is to start getting on the road, playing shows outside of Louisiana and building contacts in other cities. She loves the comedy scene here — the scene she saw in its infancy and now feels like a “den mother” to.

“I showed up so consistently,” she says. “I was volunteering to drive carpools to shows and stuff like that. I immediately assumed this sort of authoritative position, and I didn’t mean to do that. I hate having responsibility, but I feel responsible for harboring a nice atmosphere where new comedians come in and feel like we’re their friends and we have their back.”

By February, Shipley will have been performing four years in Lafayette. While other comedians she knows are quick to move to a big city, she’s in no rush to move.

“My goal isn’t to move away immediately,” she says. “I want to get on the road and hone my talents, trying to make complete strangers laugh. They have no idea who I am, no reason to trust me, and I have to win them over. It’s terrifying, but I can’t wait.”

As a comedian and with Lafayette Comedy, Leonard’s goals are as similarly hyper-local.

“I want to keep growing myself as a comedian,” he says, mentioning that he has been accepted to perform at a comedy festival in Texas next year. “Shows like that keep the wheels turning and keep me inspired. I also want to keep delivering great shows. National comedians help strengthen the scene because it makes more people aware that there is comedy in town. It draws attention to the showcases and open mics.

“I love it when someone gets inspired to perform after coming to a national show or local showcase.”

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