Joke a Lot: Carbondale Comedians Keep Southern Illinois Laughing Three Nights a Week

Carbondale’s a funny town. Literally. One of the hottest comics of the 1960s, Dick Gregory, went to
Chris Wissmann

Carbondale’s a funny town. Literally. One of the hottest comics of the 1960s, Dick Gregory, went to SIU. So did stars Jim Belushi and Melissa McCarthy. While working at SIU student station WIDB, Breaking Bad star Bob Odenkirk used to perform impromptu shows as an itinerant preacher in the old Free Forum Area. Earlier this year, another SIU alum, Hannibal Buress, sold out two standup shows at the Vic Theater in Chicago, where he taped an upcoming Comedy Central special, Nonsense. T-Murph wound up with a bit part in Key and Peele. Longtime Nightlife film critic Bryan Miller took his standup act to Craig Ferguson’s late-night TV show.

It’s a heavy legacy to carry forth, but in 2009 Kyle Scanlan gathered a crew of local comics who have since developed a scene through near-weekly performances at a variety of venues. Dubbed the Carbondale Comedians, they currently host open mics Mondays at the Hangar 9, Tuesdays at Martini Joe’s in Marion, and Wednesdays at the Longbranch Café and Bakery. Six to eight comics show up on a typical night.

Amber Klear was among the first comics to join Scanlan (who now plies his trade in Chicago’s comedy clubs) in the Carbondale Comedians. Currently living near Saint Louis, Klear, when she’s not performing elsewhere (and she has upcoming gigs in Florida and Indianapolis), comes to Southern Illinois’s open mics as often as possible. She’s also booked Brian Madrid, a comedic hypnotist, to play in September at Walker’s Bluff.

“I like hearing people laugh and making people happy,” she says. “I’ve personally had a lot of stuff I’m going through and I like to find the lighter side.”

For example?

“When you walk into a public restroom and it smells really bad,” she replies, “at least you know the toilet seat is going to be warm.”

Life is circular, she says, and if her comedy can make someone happy, they may make someone else happy. Somewhere down the line, Klear says, someone might treat someone else a little better down at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

So it’s paying it forward?

“Yeah,” Klear quips, “but in a very selfish way.”

One of the Carbondale Comedians’ current organizers, Eric Brown, arrived at SIU by 2010, unaware of the local comedy scene. After catching a showcase at the now-defunct Gatsby’s nightclub, Brown began trying his hand at the open mics. As he demonstrated his commitment (and not just to standup— he also joined a now-defunct local improv group), Brown found a nurturing environment among the more established comics. He says Carbondale has “a scene where you can practice— a batting cage for comedy.” Then, being a comic, he adds that it’s “a safe place to come and suck.”

When open-mic slots are available for new comics, the rules are fair but firm. “Don’t steal, and just try to be funny,” Brown begins. Racist so-called comedy doesn’t fly. Disgusting isn’t inherently funny, and aspiring comics should know the difference. As Brown puts it, “Promote art and don’t just make the audience uncomfortable.”

It also helps, Brown says, to avoid putting on personae and airs: “Something about Carbondale that’s nice... whatever it is you are, just be that.”

Another advantage to the small local scene is the pressure it puts on comics to keep writing. In a big city, Brown says, a comedian might play multiple shows a day with completely different audiences each time. That won’t happen in Carbondale.

“You might get the same people [in the audience] three or four weeks in a row,” Brown says. “You can’t do the same set or they’ll stop coming.”

Another challenge is the Hangar, the acoustics at which were not designed for standup comedy. Furthermore, audiences there are used to loud music and accustomed to chatting through performances. When a comedian creates a set and develops performing skills strong enough to cut through the distractions and capture people’s attentions, Klear says, that’s a sure sign “you can make anyone, anywhere laugh.”

And the impressive diversity of performers— who can range from droll, punny humorists to edgy, aggressive comics— is frequently matched by the audiences. “It’s nice,” Klear says. “Someone from a po-dunk town can laugh at someone from Chicago and vice-versa. Everyone can relate to each other through laughter.”

who: Carbondale Comedians

what: standup comedy

where: Hangar 9; Martini Joe’s in Marion; Longbranch Café and Bakery

when: Mondays; Tuesdays; Wednesdays