WASHINGTON — It was just another Thursday night in D.C.’s Dupont Circle, as folks gathered to enjoy comedians Joe List and Mark Normand at The Big Hunt.
Suddenly, a roar let out as Louis CK took the basement stage for a surprise 15-minute stand-up set.
That’s what went down Jan. 12, but it’s also what routinely happens at D.C.-area bars thanks to Underground Comedy DC, which sets up local stand-up gigs where you never know who’ll show up.
“I found out about it the night before,” founder Sean Joyce told WTOP. “Louis was filming a new special at [DAR] Constitution Hall, and they proposed having a surprise show after the regular Thursday show. … [List and Normand] were like, ‘If we do it, there’s a chance Louis will come.'”
So, they put tickets on sale around midnight Wednesday, as Joyce sent an email to his mailing list, and Normand posted a subtle hint on social media, writing, “You never know who might drop by.”
“It’s weird to see Louis there,” Joyce said. “There’s this ceiling dripping — giving him a beer in a plastic cup was weird, but I think it ended up being fun … Louis is the best, and of course, [Dave] Chappelle.”
A similar event happened just a few weeks earlier when Patton Oswalt showed up for a surprise set of his own on New Year’s Day at the Wonderland Ballroom in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.
“That was another crazy reaction from the crowd, ’cause that was a complete surprise,” Joyce said. “It wasn’t mentioned at all ahead of time. The audience just found out when he got brought up on stage.”
What other big names have popped up at Underground Comedy shows?
“Hannibal Buress has dropped into a couple of shows, which was very exciting,” Joyce said. “Michael Che dropped in, then he decided to come back to actually headline shows. He headlined six shows at Big Hunt the week of his special taping that just came out on Netflix, so he was at Big Hunt Monday through Wednesday for six shows, then recorded his special on Friday [at the Kennedy Center].”
In this way, Underground Comedy takes advantage of comedians coming to town for bigger shows.
“Che was in town because he was at the Kennedy Center and was just looking for [other gigs],” Joyce said. “Comics are generally looking for places to perform when they’re around. He just looked it up on the internet and just showed up, just walked in. I didn’t do anything. But he liked the room and knew that he wanted to work out his hour [of stand-up material] and he came back just for that purpose.”
That’s the big draw for these surprise shows — a chance to try new jokes in a more intimate setting.
“That was his material for his special,” Joyce said. “He was perfecting it. That was his last run-through to make sure everything was perfect for it before the special. He was really moving things around still in that last week. You could see it evolve from the first show Monday to the last show Wednesday.”
For such celebrity comics, the element of surprise is necessary to manage audience expectations.
“When those guys decide to drop in, it’s totally their decision,” Joyce said. “The last thing I want to say is Louis is coming and then he doesn’t. … If I don’t say Louis is coming and you get Mark Normand and Joe List, that’s a great show. You still have a great night. Those guys would be a great night just one of them; having both is very exciting. … A normal show, if you have no expectations, that’s a great show. But if you think Patton Oswalt is coming and he doesn’t come, that’s a pretty disappointing show.”
Another reason is crowd control.
“Also, someone like Hannibal or Louis, if you say they’re coming ahead of time, it’s out of control,” Joyce said. “You can’t fit the people that want to get in there in the room. That’s a headache and it’s really hard to deal with in a free show because there aren’t people necessarily stopping anyone from coming in, then the room gets out of control. That does happen sometimes when the word gets out.”
Who are some of the lesser known comics to watch?
“Tim Dillon,” Joyce said. “He’s a very loud, energetic person and he’s kind of political, but not in a real serious way. He’s just an amazing performer. … Compared to Joe and Mark, he’s not as far along in his career because he hasn’t been doing it as long, but he’s a very powerful performer. When you put him in that small room at Big Hunt, it really is very fun to watch and experience. When he comes to do the shows, I’m not worried at all about the show. I know the show is gonna be good no matter what.”
His respect for rising comics comes from his own experience as a stand-up comic the past six years.
“I was dating somebody who wanted to go see a free show, which I assumed would be terrible, and it was not terrible at all!” Joyce said. “The comedians were hilarious. … I was like, ‘How are people in a bar in Clarendon going to be funny if the people on TV aren’t even funny?’ But it turns out they were, and some of those people are on TV now. … The girl I was dating encouraged me to try it, so I did, and once you start doing it, it’s kind of an addiction and you just end up performing every night.”
Then, one fateful night at the 11th Street Lounge in Clarendon, Joyce moved from comic to organizer.
“The first open mic I ever went to, the person who ran it had moved and nobody wanted to run it anymore,” Joyce said. “I agreed to take over the show. … I hosted it for one week and the manager came to me and told me they were closing it and tearing the building down the next week. That was the last show. So, just from that experience … I felt an obligation and a desire to start another one.”
He soon began organizing shows in Virginia, then moved to D.C. to launch Underground Comedy.
“I was performing on other peoples’ shows, but I was kind of unsatisfied with them,” Joyce said. “I didn’t really like the way it was being run, so I started two shows at the same time. Because there was two shows, I decided it would make sense to have an overarching name [Underground Comedy]. … That gradually grew to three shows. The most it got up to was 12 in a week. We’re at 10 right now.”
Those 10 weekly shows are staged primarily out of three local venues, usually Vendetta on Tuesdays, The Big Hunt on Wednesdays through Saturdays, and the Wonderland Ballroom on Sundays. Shows are free every night except for Friday and Saturday, which cost $10 to see the more famous comics.
Along the way, Underground Comedy has built quite the faithful audience from show to show.
“I always assumed certain nights were good for certain people or certain neighborhoods,” Joyce said. “It turns out, people travel across the city to different shows on different nights to different venues. … I would consider them very ‘with it’ comedy fans. They understand comedy and really get what I’m trying to do. … Then there’s also a lot of people who are just looking for something to do. … The venues do have various specials, but it’s [usually] a free show, so you’re coming out ahead regardless.”
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