by Leah Sottile

It's a zoo in here. No, really. It feels like I'm sitting somewhere between the laughing hyenas' cage and the pen holding a banana-drunk mob of screaming chimps. Except instead of being cuddly and innocent captives, these beasts are chain-smoking Pall Malls, wearing orange lipstick and sporting brand-new acid-washed jeans. There are more than a few mullets here; they're the ones head-banging to the Scorpions' "Wind of Change."

If you look closely, there's one specimen seated right by the stage, lips curling back from his teeth at every chance -- occasionally just letting his jaw hang open as he waits for the next laugh. There's a pack of wild ones at the front, tattooed, short-skirted and baring lipstick-flecked teeth, roaring louder than anyone. There are tamer ones spotted around, mostly tucked in the corners of the cage, tails tucked between legs but still letting out the occasional snicker that won't bring any unnecessary predators to their safe areas.

It's a Friday night at the Brickwall Comedy Club, and this jungle crowd is in stitches over Devin Barber's jokes about his weight problem. Cocktail waitresses work the club floor with trays full of martinis, and owner Chris Warren wipes down the bar before taking the stage to introduce the next comic. Sure, this isn't Comedy Central -- but it's the closest thing Spokane's got. And braving the zoo is worth it for a night of entertainment.

The Lonely Mic -- "The state of comedy in Spokane is, well, small," says Dan Cummins, one of two top-flight comedians who call Spokane home. "Like music and theater, stand-up comedy truly is an art form if done well."

With only one club, one open-mic night and one regular "comedy night" in the city, laughing away weekend nights in a variety of club settings isn't an option yet for Spokane -- but we're on our way. This is by and large due to the recent relocation of the Brickwall Comedy Club, says Cummins. It's tightly tucked away in the basement of the Budget Inn on Fourth Avenue (once home to the jazz club Hobart's), but it's actually the only full-time comedy club between Seattle and Minneapolis. According to Chris Warren, the club's owner, that could potentially mean a lot for Spokane's laughability factor on the national spectrum.

"We now can offer comics enough work ... a big enough weekly paycheck ... to make it worthwhile to come to Spokane, " he says of the club's new five nights of live stand-up comedy.

The Brickwall was previously housed inside the Season Ticket Sports, Spirits & amp; Grub complex, but Warren could only offer comedy on the weekends there. While the location was great, says Warren, being able to offer comedy throughout the week attracts more national acts and encourages local comedians to take the stage. He says that comedy just sits better with crowds when it's the absolute focus of the venue.

"The comic is essentially invading the home of the regulars," Warren says of bar performances. "It is a bar, where comedy is made to conform to the room -- rather than having the room designed for comedy, as our new venue is."

"Speaking as a comic myself, working the full-time rooms is much nicer," he says, "and the crowds are much better because they are coming out specifically to see comedy."

Having that full-time comedy setting is something that cities like Seattle and San Francisco offer, and having even one of these types of venues means big things for our little city, Cummins notes.

"Comics, especially new ones, need stage time to grow," he says. "Practicing songs in the attic might work for bands, but practicing jokes at home does nothing for comics other than making them creepy."

And he would know. Originally from Riggins, Idaho, Cummins got his start in stand-up after appearing at an open-mic night here in town. A little over a year later, he was appearing at the Seattle International Comedy Competition, where he placed second. He has appeared in national clubs from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, and has been featured four times on the nationally syndicated, "Bob and Tom Show."

But he needs a place to keep in practice, and Cummins has chosen to base himself in Spokane. It hasn't been easy, but he seems to think the comedy scene is on the rise here.

"If you want to make it into the national comedy scene from Spokane, you have to work a lot harder and travel a lot more than you do if you were based in Seattle, or San Francisco," he says. "I will say that the open-mic here in Spokane is very supportive and less judgmental than open-mics in larger cities."

Not Just Fart Jokes -- Yeah, there were a lot of mullets in the crowd at the Brickwall, and probably a few Trans-Ams in the parking lot. But that doesn't mean the comedy was excessively vulgar. It was just a little vulgar.

"A lot of comics assume that Spokane audiences go for only lowbrow or dirty material," Cummins says. "However, intelligent people live in this, and every city -- and if these people happen to come out to see a show, they're gonna laugh at good, creative material, just as intelligent people do in any other market."

The Brickwall, through and through, is a comedy club. You can smoke, you can drink, you can swear, yell and guffaw as loudly as you please. The Brickwall comics joke about everything from failed marriages to Canadian dogcatchers. And eventually, toward the end of their sets, they got around to those bodily fluid jokes.

"Good comedy is different for everybody," Cummins says. "I like original, creative humor. I like dark, clever jokes."

On the night we sampled the new Wednesday night live comedy at Ella's, CenterStage's newest addition to their three-story arts haven, dark and clever humor was out in full stride. Two comedians took the mic that night in front of a sparse crowd, making jokes about their balding hair and other shrinking parts. Occasionally they'd stop and ask, "Wanna see me juggle?" At this point the comic would reach into his pocket and ... well, you get the point.

"A lot of other people," says Cummins, "seem perfectly content with old, stock dick-and-fart jokes -- jokes that sound like you've heard them before. Jokes that make me get up and leave the room in disgust, but leave plenty of people dying laughing."

Sounding exasperated, he says that "In the end, comedy is, above all, subjective."

Unplanned Laughs -- So you've got kids. Or maybe you're just not into hearing the nitty-gritty on the bedroom and bathroom from your comedians. Here's where improvisational comedy comes in -- it's a different kind of humor.

"Clearly, we're doing comedy, but a lot of times there are connotations associated with comedy: smoky bars and stuff like that," says Kasey Christie, executive producer of ComedySportz.

ComedySportz makes you laugh, but it's worlds apart from stand-up. In fact, the Comedy-Sportz players will make you laugh while they stand up, sit down, roll around and occasionally do a Riverdance. It's a high-paced show in the style of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and Christie says you can always count on ComedySportz for a good laugh.

"[We] put on a show where improv is the star," he says. "We have a skeleton laid out, and the meat on the bones is improv.

"With improv, we just stumble across funny -- it's never planned."

Shows at the downtown location of CSz are friendly to all ages, and never too simple-minded for adults. And the players here have an even more difficult job than most stand-up comedians: they promise to stay positive.

"One thing we try to do is be a positive force in what could be seen as a sea of negativity," Christie says about creating clean comedy. "Unlike stand-up, we try to be very positive." Comedy-Sportz even metes out penalties for off-color lines: brown bags placed over the heads of offenders (whether they're performers or audience members).

The Blue Door Theater does much of the same thing across town in the Garland District, performing improvisational shows every Friday at 8 pm. No brown bags or referees with whistles at the Blue Door, however. Relying heavily on audience suggestion often leads her improvisers into poking fun at people, says Mary Stover, the marketing and artistic director at Blue Door.

"If you ask for a local celebrity suggestion, I can't tell you how many Eugster jokes we did," she says. "I don't even know the guy."

With the improv that you'll find at both Blue Door and ComedySportz comes a lot of laughs -- and it's different every week because the audience members are new.

"I think one of the most unique things about improv is the audience has a big say in what you're doing," Stover says. "I think that anytime you have a say in something, you feel like you have a hand in it being funny."

And that's what comedy is all about. No matter if it's a guy standing at a microphone while dodging beer glasses and choking on smoke or if it's a herd of people acting out a party scene in a bowl of Jell-O, there are a lot of funny people in this town. They're all working hard to make you giggle -- but as Cummins says, they can't do it without an audience.

The Brickwall Comedy Club is at 110 E. Fourth Ave. Shows are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 pm (with a second show on Saturdays at 10 pm); Open mic on Sundays at 9 pm. Tickets: $3-$10. Call 484-2431.

Ella's at CenterStage is at 1017 W. First Ave. Live comedy is every Wednesday at 8 pm. Cover: $7. Call 747-8243.

ComedySportz is at 227 W. Riverside Ave. Shows are every Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets: $8-$10. Call 363-1279.

The Blue Door Theatre is at 815 W. Garland Ave. Shows are every Friday at 8 pm. Tickets: $6-$8. Call 747-7045.

Publication date: 10/28/04

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...