It's not easy being a comedian in New Orleans. Sparse audiences and a dearth of appropriate venues have given new depth and meaning to the whole "dying is easy, comedy is hard" line. Local stand-up comic Jodi Borrello has made a name for herself on the national scene after a decade of performing, but in the lean early years of New Orleans comedy she was part of a crew of about 15 comics who made the rounds together, performing where they could. "For years it was, 'Isn't that a pizza place? Yeah, but we're doing a comedy show there,'" Borrello says. "I don't care. Just give me an environment."
Today, that scrappy, do-it-yourself work ethic lives on in both the stand-up and sketch/improv scenes in New Orleans. But nearly everyone involved in local comedy agrees that conditions have improved dramatically. Comedy-centered open-mic nights have popped up at neighborhood bars all over the city, including Bullet's Sports Bar, Howling Wolf's The Den, Lost Love Lounge and The Maison, as well as at the more improv-oriented La Nuit Comedy Theater Uptown and the Shadowbox Theatre in the Marigny. And the Wednesday night open-mic at Carrollton Station has become the unofficial home of stand-up comedy in New Orleans, with as many as 30 comedians performing on a given night.
"I think some of the bar owners around the city have figured out that stand-up comedy can be pretty easily done," says Dane Faucheux, one of New Orleans' top stand-up comics and a founder of Carrollton Station's comedy night. "It's not like booking a band where you've got to haul all this equipment. There's not a big cost for bars to try it, so there's been more acceptance."
The local comedy scene also has benefited from New Orleans' post-Katrina demographic shift, which has brought in many new residents from major cities across the country that have thriving comedy scenes. "I think it's a parallel to what you see with the boom in the city, with all the young professionals moving down," says Derek Dupuy, a writer and performer with local sketch/improv group Stupid Time Machine. "People are coming from places like Chicago and expecting to find a real comedy scene in New Orleans."
The national trend toward younger, hipper types of comedy also has had an effect on the local scene. A single comedy bit can go viral and be seen by millions on the web in a matter of hours or minutes. "I hate to use the analogy, but Tiger Woods came along and you started seeing more kids playing golf," Jodi Borrello says. "Comedy Central started happening — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert. I think people just started becoming more aware of it. Or a younger generation did. And now you've got Facebook, YouTube, all these media that are coming together at the right time."
One local result of that new awareness of comedy has been the rise of long-form improvisation. New Orleans native Yvonne Landry opened The Comedy Conservatory, a part of her La Nuit Comedy Theater, in 2002, and has trained hundreds of aspiring performers in the art of improv while attracting students from as far away as Florida and Alabama. Unlike stand-up, improv provides an intensely social experience for participants and attracts not only would-be comedians, but those seeking a new creative outlet or who just want to meet like-minded people, Landry says.
"I do stand-up, but I love improvising," Landry says. "I like to say there's more room to hide. If an audience doesn't like you doing stand-up, they hate you. But if you're an improviser, you've got five friends to cover for you. The whole point is to make your friends look good. If you're standing out in the show, you're failing. That's what I teach, anyway."
Comedy Conservatory alumni Chris Trew, Tami Nelson and the members of Stupid Time Machine currently collaborate on comedy improv classes now given at the Shadowbox Theatre. They plan to open their own full-time theater for comedy and comedy instruction in New Orleans next year, which will complement similar facilities Trew and Nelson co-founded in Austin, Texas, and Dallas.
Like so many in New Orleans' large creative community, local comedians do what they do because they love it — even though the abundance of entertainment choices in New Orleans on any given night makes it that much more difficult to attract audiences and further their careers. Jodi Borrello and Dane Faucheux both recall a single shared experience that connects them not only to each other, but to their hometown.
"After Katrina, Jodi and I did a bunch of shows together for the troops that were stationed down here," Faucheux says. "It's a selfish thing, you know? It's Katrina, and you're a comic. You feel useless. They would come and get us in a convoy and take us to different locations, Zephyr Field or the Convention Center, and we'd perform. It was nice to do something in a small way to entertain these guys who were here to help us. They didn't have anything to do, they couldn't drink — sober is not a normal stand-up audience. It went over great, and after the shows some of them gave us the badges from their units. Pretty neat."