|Guest Blogger Lucas Lewis|
By Lucas Lewis
CAMBRIDGE — Rhys Thomas paces nervously in front of the Middle East Corner on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. The 22-year-old Beverly native and student at North Shore Community College is preparing to perform standup comedy in front of a crowd for the first time, at the weekly Corner Comedy Open Mic, and he’s, well…
“I’m a wreck,” he says matter-of-factly.
Thomas has been taking a standup class at nearby ImprovBoston with Josh Gondelman (joshgondelman.com), a young but seasoned comic thought by many to be among the city’s best. Gondelman won Atlanta’s Laughing Skulls Comedy Festival last year, and in June he’ll record his first CD.
But Gondelman is also a preschool teacher who’s widely considered “Boston’s nicest comedian” — a persona he plays with on his website — and his soft-spoken demeanor is no doubt a comfort for fledgling comedians like Thomas.
The impetus for Thomas to actually pick up a mic, however, came as a result of another show put on by tonight’s host, Rob Crean of Anderson Comedy.
“It’s been something I’ve always enjoyed, but I never thought I could actually do it,” Thomas says. “I went to see Rob’s show kind of by accident, ‘The Gas’ (a showcase that takes place every Friday Night at Allston rock club Great Scott), and that’s the first time I ever saw local comedy.”
Boston’s local standup comedy scene is experiencing a second renaissance, producing shows at the rate — if not the profit margin — that made it known as a comedy hub in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the likes of Denis Leary, Lenny Clark and Steven Wright patrolled the stage.
The Middle East Corner’s Tuesday night show is just one of many comedy open mics around town; Boston comedians regularly go on to appear on Comedy Central and, sometimes, the major network late night shows; and alternative shows are cropping up all around the city, from rock clubs in Allston to cramped living rooms in Jamaica Plain.
Not all of this is new, of course, but the manner, scope and character of these independent comedy ventures are unique, according to more than a dozen comedians, club owners and journalists interviewed for this series.
Thomas aside, the cast of characters at the Corner Comedy Open Mic doesn’t seem to veer dramatically from those comedians showcased elsewhere on Friday and Saturday nights. In this respect, it's similar to the other main comedy open mics around town: Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville’s Union Square (Monday), Grandma's Basement in Fenway (Thursday), and The Banshee in Dorchester and Rosebud in Davis (Sunday).
You quickly start to see a lot of the same faces.
This is one of the things that sets Boston apart — it's small enough that there is a real sense of community. There are Facebook groups as well as the Boston Comedy Softball League. Instead of stealing material, Boston comedians have a reputation for suggesting “tags,” or additional punchlines, to one another.
When Myq Kaplan, a finalist on the last season of Last Comic Standing, got started in 2004, “I didn't realize how welcoming and supportive and encouraging the Boston comedy scene was,” he says. Kaplan, who has released a comedy album (Vegan Mind Meld), now lives in New York — a place that, because of its size and scale, lacks the camaraderie of the Boston comedy scene.
“To me it was just incredibly supporting,” adds Shane Mauss, who within months of starting standup upon moving to Boston in 2004 was getting prime gigs and invaluable advice thanks to other comedians. A lot of that had to do with the fact that he was good, of course, but it's a sentiment echoed by most of the comedians interviewed.
Perhaps when Rhys Thomas conquers his nerves a little more, he might find the same thing. Despite being petrified, he gamely delivered his material, which was based on the premise that he's worried about people who are telepathic because he feels like his brain is a messy apartment. A line about there being “porn everywhere” got a laugh.
Ultimately, Thomas was pleased with how his first show went. Contacted a few months later, Thomas hadn't performed again aside from the graduation show for the class he was taking. But he was resolved to change that.
“I’m still terrified,” he says, “but in the past two weeks I have started writing out bits that I like, that I’m laughing at, instead of just premises.”
Even with his somewhat peculiar, alternative brand of comedy, Thomas can expect to find a warm reception.