Inside this cavernous venue that's soon to be the Spokane Comedy Club, you can almost hear the cowboy boots scuffling and cheap beers clinking. What was once the Big City Saloon, across from the Amtrak Station on Sprague, is transforming into the funniest spot downtown.
Today, construction workers secure beams and sand down exposed wood. Black pipes, which will eventually lead to the bathrooms, a concession stand and full bar, stick out from the ground. There is no heat. Co-owners Renee and Kevin Fandt explain that the brick walls will stay, lending the perfect backdrop for the stage that isn't yet built. But the skylights and towering front windows will have to be covered.
"We don't know why, but people laugh more the darker a room is," Kevin says. "They somehow feel more comfortable."
The venue's four owners already have a comfortable setup at the Tacoma Comedy Club, but with ties to Spokane, they're opening this second venue at a comparable near-300 capacity.
Spokane isn't new to stand-up, but over the past couple of years, an interest in comedy has grown locally. Open mic nights and comedy events have multiplied around town, while big-name touring comedians consistently sell out local concert venues. Now with the help of a full-time comedy club, its owners hope that area residents' penchant for stand-up, both local and touring comics, will continue to grow.
The Fandts — who met in Spokane when Kevin was at Fairchild Air Force Base and Renee studied at Eastern Washington University, but moved to the westside two decades ago — weren't into stand-up comedy. They only attended shows if their son, comic Adam Norwest, performed. Five years ago, after a partner backed out, Norwest convinced his parents to go into the comedy club business with him and wife, Bree.
Now, after watching comedy five nights a week for years, they say they're obsessed. Business is good in Tacoma, they say. Renee admits it took a while to turn a profit, but about two years ago she quit her cushy Boeing job, and now works the club full time. About a year and a half ago, the Fandts started plans to open another club in their former city.
"We've always loved Spokane and have wanted to come back for a while," Renee says. The Fandts have chosen to divide their time; they'll live in Spokane two weeks out of the month.
Where many other comedy clubs have failed in Spokane — most recently a venue, also called the Spokane Comedy Club, inside the Tailgater sports bar, closed after its owner was convicted of fraud and embezzlement in 2013 — Spokane Comedy Club's owners say this venture will be different.
"We're setting ourselves up as a premier club bringing in national talent," Renee says.
The comedy club also puts a premium on eliminating market oversaturation. Norwest, the club booker, is picky about the comedians playing the Tacoma club and has set up an 18-to-20-month rotation. Comedians aren't selected based on tour schedules; rather, the club brings them in specifically for that show. Now with two Washington venues, Norwest can sweeten the deal, booking high-profile comics at both places.
The Fandts say they aren't familiar yet with Spokane comedians, but growing the local talent is also part of their mission. They plan to host open mics on Wednesdays and develop more local programming.
"Locals build this thing," Renee says. "We can't do this without them."
After only a tiny flutter of laughter, Mika Lahman shakes her head.
"That joke went over way better last week," she says from the Checkerboard Bar's multi-tiered stage.
Lahman, 30, does comedy full time in Spokane. On Tuesdays, the dry-humored comedian hosts the Checkerboard's trivia and open mic night. Otherwise, she's telling jokes at various open mic nights. Sometimes she's paid to do local and national showcases. She has aspirations of moving to Atlanta for comedy, maybe writing movie scripts. For now, she's refining her craft here.
Those seriously working the open mic circuit, like Lahman, begin with new or recent material on Monday and polish it throughout the week. Even on a Thursday when the hardcore comics do Uncle D's Comedy Underground, then make the pilgrimage to Neato Burrito's open mic, the second set is tweaked. And Lahman's Holocaust joke, which didn't kill at the Checkerboard, gets more laughs as the week progresses.
She says interest in the comedy scene has grown since she started doing comedy three years ago, and that audiences are now made up of people besides other comics. Lahman is also part of the local SpoKomedy group, started by comedians Harry J. Riley and Nicky J. Cavasier in 2014 to help stand-up performers find community and bring more comedy events to the area. At one point last year, there was an open mic nearly every night of the week. Still, Lahman says a full-time club could help the stand-up scene.
"I think that a club that brings in big names is more beneficial for our scene, because people will take local comics more seriously," Lahman says. "Also, we lack people to look up to. There's no class to go to. We're mostly at the same level. But to have someone to meet and talk to about comedy, that could change everything."
Not that stand-up is new to Spokane.
Don "The Hit Man" Parkins, aka Uncle D, wants to retire from the comedy business. But sitting in his office, full of Marilyn Monroe and Scarface posters, the 64-year-old hypnotist and comedian says that won't happen soon. His North Spokane club, upstairs in the now-defunct Bluz at the Bend facility (the building is for sale), runs three nights a week from September through April, and has brought in touring acts and started careers for professional comedians like Dan Cummins for a decade.
Among his many duties, Parkins considers himself a mentor.
"These young kids want to be on stage over and over because of that feeling, it's just as good as sex. Maybe better," Parkins says. "Once you make people laugh, you never want to stop."
After 30 years of performing, Parkins says comedy is the purest of art forms, which many in Spokane, including people in the arts scene, don't fully appreciate. Where other comedy clubs have folded, Parkins says he treats comedy like a business. Another comedy club opening downtown will only strengthen the scene as a whole, he says. The city may start taking stand-up seriously.
Tonight, before open mic night at Uncle D's, a father and son are arguing. Jay Wendell Walker hates when you call him a comedy legend. Legends are dead, he says. His kidneys, heart and knees have all given out over the past decade. He needs another surgery soon, but at 73, he's still kicking, albeit with a cane.
"The reason he's a legend," Walker's son, comedian Adam Lee, interrupts from across the table, "is because everywhere I perform, someone knows him or worked with him or saw him."
Lee says people treat him differently when they know his dad.
"All right, but you're alone on stage," says Walker, winner of the 2006 San Francisco International Comedy Competition and a semifinalist on America's Got Talent in 2008. "That's all you. I didn't get you there."
Lee and Walker work around the country, sometimes together; they try not to perform in Spokane too much. Later tonight, both comics take the stage. Lee commands the room with sheer force while Walker plays the grumpy old man. He drops his cane and Parkins comes to pick it up.
"Be careful, I know what you want to do with that," Walker riffs.
As other local comedians take their turn at the mic throughout the night, Walker comments.
"She had original things to say," he says of Lahman.
Walker has watched many comedy clubs come and go in the Inland Northwest. He's played the Tacoma Comedy Club before, but he says that Spokane is different. People here haven't always supported comedy, he says.
"I hope that it works here," Walker says. "I want it to work." ♦
The Spokane Comedy Club's upcoming lineup includes Sarah Colonna, Jamie Kennedy, Tom Segura, Craig Robinson, Adam Ferrara and Spokane's own Dan Cummins. Find out more at spokanecomedyclub.com
Laugh Out Loud | The Humor Issue
by Laura Johnson
This is our first crack at a humor issue. We wanted to focus on our local scene, but also try to make you laugh, because, well, we think we're funny.
While the area is full of hilarious people — including improv actors at the Blue Door Theatre and humorous writers — for this particular edition, we chose to hone in on stand-up. With a brand-new comedy club opening downtown in March, Spokane's stand-up comedy scene is poised to grow even bigger.
In this issue, you'll read about local comedians, comedy history, how to write jokes, a particularly insightful essay on bombing at the mic and a special advice column from Dr. Lovehandle, DDS. In a world where so much continues to go to shit, it's important that humor remains a constant.