Striding, mic in hand, across a floor stained by years of mentholated soot and cheap lager, Drew Morgan is an anomaly in Knoxville: a stand-up comic performing at the Pilot Light, an indie-rock club. And the differences between him and the club regulars are manifold and obvious, from his barbershop haircut and slow-drip East Tennessee drawl, to the dirty boot-cut jeans which seem to have actually faded onto his legs.
But if he's out of place, he doesn't know it, because he fairly commands the crowded little bar with the alpha certainty of a football coach, the fulminating zeal of a charismatic preacher.
"That last joke was ironic, by way," he says to the crowd of indie kids. "Kind of like most of your clothes."
And slowly, as his routine builds in a succession of mounting waves, he takes his slacker audience in hand and wrings them for all they're worth, pulling the crescendo into a routine about reading the book of Revelation while stoned; about how after the sounding of the sixth trumpet, an angel of God descends from the heavens, plants one foot on land and one in the ocean and reads from a great scroll in a voice of doom and thunder.
"And I don't mean one foot in the water, one up on the beach with his balls hanging in the surf," he roars. "I mean one foot in the Marianas Trench and another over in some f--ked-up place where no one should ever live, like Oklahoma or Nebraska.… If it were a graphic novel, everyone in this room would own a copy!"
And then his finale, his piece de resistance, a rant about how all the mystique has been sucked out of rock 'n' roll by the Information Age, by the Internet and 24-hour news cycles and TMZ, ending with a drawn-out impression of Jim Morrison onstage in full Lizard King mode, swaggering and spinning his mic and then dropping and dry-humping the stage in a paroxysm of drunken frenzy. And how his bandmates explode as soon as they get off stage, despite the crowd roaring outside for more of his glowering freak-out trip, because to the band he's not the Lizard King, he's just drunk Jim making it harder for everyone else. And how none of it could have happened the same way now, with a preternaturally well-groomed TMZ host waiting offstage to describe the whole behind-the-scenes milieu like some plastic-coiffed Al Michaels doing play-by-play.
It's a bravura performance, rendered all the more impressive by the dank setting and the fact that Morgan has been doing regular stand-up for scarcely a year. Having spent a couple of years in Miami, the Sunbright native won an amateur comedy contest there his first time on stage in 2010. But his life-long stand-up dreams remained dormant until he moved back to East Tennessee last September, did a Google search, and discovered the budding underground stand-up scene in Knoxville, a network of ready open mics and fraternal comedians founded by local comic Matt Ward and a few others.
"The only way to get better at comedy is to do it," Morgan says. "Miami had a few big clubs and that was it. Here, we've got so many opportunities for a city this size. And hanging out and working with the other comedians has helped me more than anything. I can't even put a number on how much I've improved."
There are weeks, in fact, when the city's aspiring comedians can avail themselves of open-mic time six nights out of seven, with weekly, semi-weekly, or monthly events at various non-standard venues like Preservation Pub, and, of course, at Side Splitters, Knoxville's only full-time comedy venue.
It's a scene that's grown to its current state of robust health in scarcely a year's time, and which the comics themselves rate as superior, in terms of both community and opportunity, to those of other like-sized—and even many larger—Southeastern cities. Ward notes that local events often draw comics from Chattanooga, Lexington, even Nashville, due to the plethora of available mic time.
"The quality of our comics, as a whole, has gotten pretty good," says Jeff Blank, a twinkly eyed, quirkily mustachioed everyman of the local scene. "Some are better than others, of course. But the ones who have consistently done the open mics have exponentially gotten better in the last year. And there's no other place around, no other city, where you can do that, go and work things out night after night after night onstage."
Most local scenesters seem to agree that interest in comedy is on an upswing everywhere, though the reasons for that are complicated and the phenomenon is difficult to quantify. The simplified version of the story is that the cyclical nature of the trend and the abundance of new media have spurred new interest in comedy, while the death of clubs left to wither on the vine after the waning of the comedy boom of the 1980s has created demand for new outlets.
"Comedy is definitely more popular now, because it's more accessible," says Side Splitters managing partner Bridgette O'Dell. The club opened in 2009, after Knoxville's last comedy-boom holdover, the Comedy Zone, closed in 2008; O'Dell moved here as a partner from the Side Splitters anchor location in Tampa, Fla., soon thereafter.
"You've got social media, and Last Comic Standing and Comedy Central and satellite radio," she says. "Satellite radio is huge; you can tune in and just listen to comedy."
She notes that comics like Bill Burr and Marc Maron have built audiences wholly through podcasting. She also observes, presciently, that besides promoting new interest in comedy as an entertainment, these elements have spurred what seems to be an unprecedented interest in comedy as a vocation.
Or at least an avocation.
"Within the past 10 years, the number of comics has grown, I think mainly because of Last Comic Standing," she continues. "A lot of people want to be onstage, some of whom don't belong there. We get a ton of e-mail every week requesting work."
All of which has been key, says Matt Ward, to fostering so-called underground comedy venues and scenes. "The baby boom of comedy was in the '80s," he says. "It was all over the place. Now, maybe 10 percent of those outlets that were created still exist. And the fact that there is a growth in comics and a lack of places to perform has created a growth in independent shows. They're blowing up all over the place."
The most experienced of the local underground comics, Ward took up the game in 2007, when he lived in Ohio, working as an emcee at music festivals during his time off from a day job at Verizon Wireless. His work at Verizon took him to North Carolina, and then to Cosby in East Tennessee in 2009; his participation in comedy through open mics, contests, and later, promotion, grew at each stop along the way.
In North Carolina he fostered a local open-mic scene, and co-founded the Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington. Upon moving from Cosby to Knoxville in 2010, he did a few open-mic shows at Side Splitters, then started his own "room" with the Old City Comedy Night, once a month at the now-defunct Patrick Sullivan's.
But underground comedy didn't really take off here, Ward says, until a comedy contest he produced at Relix Variety Theatre drew a host of participants, and good crowds. "That blew my mind," he says. "We couldn't fill up Patrick Sullivan's before. Then, all of a sudden, we're getting 60 people a night for the contest."
Ward had already approached Scott and Bernadette West about promoting a comedy night at the West family's Preservation Pub on Market Square. When the club's second-floor addition opened for business in November 2010, Bernadette West took up his offer. But what began as a monthly showcase, mostly for out-of-town comics, evolved within a short time into a weekly forum for aspiring local comics.
"So many people kept showing up and asking for stage time," says Ward of the Pub's earliest Sunday comedy nights. A rubbery-limbed blond fellow in his late 30s, Ward has described himself onstage as a cross between David Spade and Ellen DeGeneres—and that description is almost shockingly accurate.
"I said, ‘I've got to see these people perform first,' so we went open mic and made it weekly in May 2011," he continues. "At first, I wanted people to write new stuff every week. Now that we've got comedy nights throughout the week, I encourage people to bring their A-game stuff; I want people to be impressed."
Those early Pub open mics were sometimes painful to watch, by all accounts. "The first time I came down, the majority of the comics sucked," says Blank, a shoe salesman who spent a few years emceeing at the Comedy Zone and working short opening sets for other local comics before returning to the stage, after a three-year hiatus, to perform at Ward's open mic.
But slowly, the tin-eared comics were slowly culled from the herd, and the talented (or at least studiously dedicated) performers began to flourish. Beginner comics' most crippling malady is a tendency to "shut off their ears onstage," Ward says. "Like, ‘I think this joke is funny, and I'm going to tell it even if it doesn't get laughs.'"
"A lot of the people that weren't getting the laughs stopped coming," Ward says. "We never discouraged them, or told them they weren't cut out for it. But when people see they're not getting laughs, and people who didn't even bring friends are getting the laughs, they either ask for help, or they drop out."
Ward—who now makes his living producing shows and touring his own comedy around the Southeast—had a galvanizing effect on the other open-mic regulars. The good ones got better, and some of the seeming lost-causes opened their ears, discovered their stage legs, and became legitimate performers. Ward found new venues at the Well in Bearden and the monthly Star of Knoxville riverboat Booze Cruise events; and other comics were encouraged to start their own open mics, at Old City Entertainment Venue, 11 Café on Gay Street, the Ale House in West Knoxville, and Club eXile in Bearden.
Most of the Knoxville comedy scene regulars now look upon Ward with the sort of fondness usually reserved for favorite relatives—perhaps because, in a very real sense, he is the mentoring spiritual leader of a new and surprisingly close-knit community.
"Matt is somewhat sarcastically, but totally lovingly, referred to as the godfather of Knoxville comedy," Morgan says. "He has that sort of ‘I can't find what I'm looking for, so I think I'll create it' attitude and way of doing things that most of us aspire to, but few people really have."
And the result of his efforts is a scene that takes pride in its familial bonds, and its nurturing fecundity. "There are a lot of amazing people on the scene," says Collin Gerberding, host of a biweekly gathering at the Ale House . "That's made it more easy and open for travelers. And it's made it easy to ask questions. I've been able to progress pretty well, because it's so easy to reach out for help."
It's been a boy's club, for the most part, although there has been a smattering of woman comics emerging on the scene. Augusta Anderson, aka Sassy Frass, is a performer with White Lightnin' Burlesque. Seeking to expand her onstage repertoire, Anderson took up the comedy mic about four months ago, with a little encouragement from Ward, J.C. Ratliff, and Blank.
"I realized I could take off my clothes in front of 500 people, but hand me a mic and I'm terrified," Anderson says. "So I ballsed up and did it. The guys have readily accepted me. They've been really good to me, and given me lots of input. And now I love it. The more I've done it, the more it's an addiction. Whether you're doing well or you're bombing, it's a learning experience either way."
J.C. Ratliff's Tuesday night open mic at Old City Entertainment Venue has apparently been labeled by some as "the most offensive room in the South." Host Ratliff readily embraces the tag; and if it's true, he is surely the man most responsible for making it so.
A classic misfit (think Judd Nelson's punkish rebel character in The Breakfast Club, sans the sunny disposition) dressed in black, with tossed-over jet locks, and a wallet chain big enough to mount on a bicycle, the only thing missing from Ratliff's defiantly morose ensemble is a small black cloud hanging cartoonishly above his scowl-furrowed brow.
Capable of being both riotously funny and uncomfortably raw, Ratliff is also a tireless promoter of Knox comedy himself; a surprisingly nurturing cheerleader for his fellow comics; and, perhaps more than all of it, a consummate provocateur. His own Tuesday night sets are often far from his best work, oversaturated with superhero rape jokes and rants about midget rights, and the occasional sharp jabs at the other comics.
But they seem to have the (perhaps intentional) effect of goading his fellow comics into edgier, more potent sets, peppered with lacerating off-the-cuff banter, and rife with off-color lines that might be held back in some of the more reserved rooms around town.
At an Old City show in mid-July, local comedian Michael Shipley quips, "I love Bath and Bodyworks. It's the only place in town I can go and fart all day without being noticed." Another performer plays havoc with the fine line between foul and funny: "I got arrested once, but it was bullshit. They were profiling. They were arresting everyone who jacked off at that playground."
Ward takes the stage—with jokes he just wrote in a day—for a brief, but funny, and very blue set about porn, genitalia, and glory holes. And even the normally sunny Blank comes on with an uncommonly ravenous edge, swiping at his fellows, then stopping in mid-routine to call out two noisy barstool conversants with an onslaught that breaks the room into howls of laughter given its lightning suddenness and cheekily righteous ferocity.
A 30-year-old northeastern Tennessee native, Ratliff is more complicated than his misanthropic goth-refugee demeanor would seem to indicate. The product of a broken home, he spent his teen years alternating between his mother's house and a series of punk-rock communes, where he learned to play multiple musical instruments and operate sound equipment.
His mother, an English professor, inspired his intellectual pursuits, and ultimately his comedy career. "She introduced me to things like the roots of vaudeville, and the avant-garde movement in Berlin," he says. "She also introduced me to comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor."
Ratliff says his mother—an advocate of free speech, in the fullest sense of the term—instilled in him his hypertrophic penchant for outrage, which he says is ultimately a vehicle for catharsis, even social relevance. "She taught me we could talk about things people don't want to talk about—that if you address the things that make people feel dismay or pain, then it's no longer taboo," he says. "Comedy at its core is created from tragedy. And we should all be fair game for that catharsis and escape."
How often he hits that goal of achieving high discourse through low comedy is sometimes a matter of taste. "J.C. seems to understand the line where he can go, and then he pushes it just as far as he can," one of his fellow comics observes. "Sometimes he crosses it and sometimes he doesn't. But he knows where it is."
Morgan says that some people write Ratliff off as "an unapologetic asshole." "But that's not true. He's just unapologetic. And that's why he's good."
Ratliff first tried comedy at age 20, through jumping the stage at a club in Johnson City. His stunts earned him work there as an emcee; but while he was a capable host, his long-form stand-up was still a work in progress. "I was very bad," he admits. "I got laughed off stage, and not in a good way."
He came to Knoxville in 2006, earning a living through DJing and performing music. Then another guy on the DJ circuit, aware of his work in comedy, approached him about initiating a comedy podcast, a free service with no restrictions or boundaries.
"It was an entirely new idea at the time," he relates. "And our first two years, we were terrible. We were learning to create an indigenous format, and we struggled."
But they learned, and today he says the Bone's Lair podcast numbers its IP downloads in the hundreds of thousands.
"It's hard to assess our actual listener base, because so many people listen to it as a group drinking activity," he says of the guerrilla comedy showcase, which he and his collaborators have produced in various locations across the city, from the dark corners of parking lots to backstage at the Valarium performance venue. "And a lot of people will take a break, then download three or four episodes at a time, which also screws with the numbers."
Ratliff's efforts to recruit more comedians to appear on Bone's Lair brought him out to Ward's shows, first in the Old City and then at Preservation Pub. Several Bone's Lair performers began working the open mics, eventually pushing Ratliff himself to make another go at stand-up in front of a live audience.
"I saw other guys perform, perfecting their act, getting everything down," he says. "They worked with me before I got onstage, which is something I'd never heard of before. They were like, ‘We want to help you; here's our phone numbers.'
"I was hooked. I've been back on stage nearly a year, and it's like a drug to me. And it's not just being back onstage. It's the guys in the circuit. They're the family I always wanted. It really is a community."
What unites the members of that community—besides an addiction to the heady blast of adrenaline that comes from making a room full of strangers laugh—is something of a puzzle. The core of 20 or so local comics who are most apt to fill out the stage roster at any given open mic are a singularly diverse lot; their number includes a shoe salesman, a graphic designer, a software developer, an attorney, and a self-styled entrepreneur.
The vitriolic poster boy of Knoxville's angry-young-man set ("There are plenty of people who do jokes about their wife and kids," he says. "But then there are plenty of people who are irritated by those people with their wife and kids. I'm their spokesman"), Ratliff says it's a tempting, but ultimately specious endeavor to write many of them off according to some sad-clown stereotype.
Or maybe mad-clown would be more appropriate. "I started by trying to be the loudest and most offensive guy on stage," he says. "I had a lot of pent-up issues I was trying to work out up there. But you can't stay in that self-abusive cycle, or it'll turn bad on you. You don't want to end up the angry drunk on the mic.
"Comedy has made me happier. Now I'm trying to make that guy in the back of the room feel happier, too."
And it often comes out, both onstage and in conversation, that many of the comics have wrestled with tragedy, or else some species of discontent: broken homes, parents with clashing value sets, divorce and unemployment. Blank relates that some of his earliest antics in high school were an effort to bring a smile to his mother's face as she suffered through a debilitating illness. His return to the stage after a three-year hiatus came after she and both his grandmothers died in the space of a few months, on top of the collapse of a relationship.
Morgan, however, posits that the comic's best driver is truth, rather than mere suffering. "I have a very realistic view of the world," he says. "But I don't necessarily think things have to turn out badly.
"You don't have to be miserable to be funny. You just have to be honest. I think the stereotype of the unhappy comedian exists because the comedians who are perceived that way are unabashedly honest about their issues. Louis CK is honestly miserable. Richard Pryor honestly smoked crack."
"We're not all crying behind the laughter; we just aren't," says Ratliff. "But if it's gonna get me laid at the end of a show—sure, why not?"
Whether any of these local comics will be able to use comedy to better their lot remains to be seen. Most of them would like to see their efforts pay off in the form of full-time stand-up work, or perhaps in writing.
A few are at least on their way. Ward earns his living through performing and producing comedy. Local favorite Trae Crowder has earned emcee work with Side Splitters; and club partner Bridgette O'Dell says former Side Splitters regulars Sandy Goddard and Jamar Gilbert have become "feature" performers.
Still others are happy to revel in the raucous freedom—if not the windfall—of making it all up as they go along, like an inspired rant at a bevy of belligerent hecklers.
"When a comic plays any venue for the first time, the first things they always ask the promoter are: What words can I say? Are any topics off limits?" Ratliff says. "In this city, we do not seem to care, and it spoils me rotten. Knoxville is one of the best cities in the country for underground comedy. Knoxville is not Comedy Central-approved."