Words and Photography by Jadrian Klinger
The Clubs, The Stand Ups, The Improv Groups and The Open Mic Nights
It’s an hour before the show at The Pullo Center in York. The house lights blaze bright in the mostly empty theater, save for a few sound guys, lighting techs and camera operators. With the mics double-checked and the complicated stage lighting adjusted, there’s little left to do but wait.
Backstage, an anxious – almost giddy – vibe settles in as the two performers pass the time.
The opener, Andy Shaw, visits with his very pregnant wife and her friend in his dressing room. The headliner, Earl David Reed, chats up some friends in the hallway outside the green room. Neither comedian is nervous, but it’s easy to see they’re ready to get out on stage.
Slowly, the clock drags its hands closer to show time for Earl David Reed’s The Insubordination Tour performance, which benefits breast cancer awareness.
Music pumped from loudspeakers mixes with the clamor of excited conversations as the theater fills with an audience looking for laughs. They already bought the ticket, now they expect to take the ride.
Reed signs a stack of posters while cracking a few jokes with Shaw. A cameraman captures some behind-the-scenes footage for the DVD of the show.
People are in the seats to see Reed, but it’s Shaw’s job to warm up the crowd with 20 minutes of material. His cue to take the stage is a Prince song. And, without much warning, Little Red Corvette plays over the sound system.
The first laugh is always the hardest, but Shaw gets it almost immediately. From there, the laughs come easier and louder. In what seems like far less than 20 minutes, he exits stage right ushered off by applause.
The audience quiets in anticipation of the main event.
When the tall curtains finally part and Reed emerges, the theater erupts. He pauses for a moment, taking it all in. And, then, mic in hand, pacing back and forth across the stage, he proceeds to kill for an hour straight – one man with a single voice personifying the blast of electric feel that is live comedy.
You can stay home, lounge on the couch, flip on the television and easily find something funny to watch. You may even crack a smile or let loose a chuckle, but nothing on cable can compare to the experience of witnessing a live comedic performance.
And, believe it or not, the midstate has plenty to offer in that department.
Reed, while undeniably one of the most popular for good reason, is not the only comedian leaving audiences weak from laughter in Central Pa. There is a vibrant scene right in your own backyard, filled with comedy clubs, improv groups, stand ups and open mic nights. Often for free or for little more than the price of a movie, the thrill of live comedy is well within reach – you just have to know where to look.
To make the quest for laughs a bit easier, Harrisburg Magazine is proud to offer a glimpse into the area’s surprisingly rich comedy scene.
Earl David Reed
Slaying audiences throughout the midstate as well as across the country with his unique brand of quick-witted, improvisational stand up for the past decade and a half, Earl David Reed can also be heard every morning from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. as one-third of The People’s Morning Show on 105.7 The X.
Stand up and morning radio was not the career path Reed originally set out on, however.
“I went to Syracuse University and graduated with a degree in dentistry,” he reveals. “Yeah, so I’m supposed to be a dentist in Rochester, N.Y., right now with a friend of mine who is pissed off because every time I go to Rochester, he can’t get tickets.”
A life choice away from being the funniest tooth doctor in N.Y., Reed’s comedy résumé proves he made the right decision.
Not only has he performed stand up at over 100 comedy clubs and colleges throughout the nation and broadcasted on the airwaves of numerous radio stations, he also won Star Search twice and appeared on NBC’s Friday Night Videos, A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, Fox’s Comic Strip Live, Showtime at the Apollo, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, HBO and Showtime.
He even entertained millions of late-night viewers on The Tonight Show in 1997.
Originally from Connecticut, Reed got his comedy start in Boston.
“When I started, it all kind of took off,” he says. “I went to Boston and performed a lot of times. Back then, I worked with a lot of people like Denis Leary and Tony Clark. …My goal when I started was to see if I could do it – get up on stage and be successful at it. Then it was to see if I could work in a club, and then it was The Tonight Show. I got to do both. After I got to do The Tonight Show, I felt like that was it, the goal I wanted to reach. For me, it was the pinnacle.”
For Reed, the worst part about performing is waiting to go on stage.
“People always ask me if I get nervous, and the answer is no, but I do get anxious,” he says. “Particularly when you get there and you think about the theater full of people who could have been anywhere tonight. This is 2013 – you don’t even have to leave your house to be entertained. Instead, they all came out because I’m here.”
Despite the anxiousness to perform, Reed admits that there’s nothing that compares to the feeling of being on stage and knowing he is killing – well, almost nothing compares.
“It’s great. Some people say it feels better than sex – that’s a lie. Nothing is better than sex, winning the Powerball maybe. Comedy is one of those things that when you’re up there and you’re killing, it’s great because it’s instant gratification. I could be on the radio and say something funny, and it goes out on 50,000 watts of radio. I don’t know if it’s funny. It may have been the funniest thing I thought I ever said, but until someone comes up to me and says so, I don’t know it. Stand up comedy is immediate, it’s right there and it is unforgiving. You put it out there, and you get it back.”
Reed is not categorized as a foul-mouthed comedian by any stretch, but there is certainly a limit to what he can say and express while on the radio.
These language barriers do not exist for the most part in the realm of live performance. In some ways, stand up comedy just might be one of the last bastions of free speech.
“I agree with that 100 percent,” he affirms. “A perfect example is when Mayor Linda Thompson called the people from Perry County ‘scumbags.’ It depends on who you are and where you are if you can say anything, but if you know anything about Perry County, then you know they get all kinds of jokes. And after all they’ve gotten, ‘scumbag’ sets them off? It’s because someone of higher authority said it in the setting in which they said it. If I get on stage, have a microphone in front of me and a brick wall behind me, I can pretty much get away with anything because people think I’m being entertaining. …It is the last free form of expression. I can say anything I want and anything that I’ve noticed. There are some things that I could say on the radio, and someone could think it’s racist or offensive. But I say it on stage, and it’s funny.”
“It’s great. Some people say it feels better than sex – that’s a lie. Nothing is better than sex, winning the Powerball maybe. Comedy is one of those things that when you’re up there and you’re killing, it’s great because it’s instant gratification.” ~ Earl David Reed
Even after eight years of entertaining Central Pa. morning commuters with Jen Shade and Nipsey on The People’s Morning Show, Reed still has no trouble making his coworkers laugh.
“He’s the sharpest guy I’ve ever worked with – the fastest, the quickest and always has something to say,” says Nipsey. “He’s been doing it for awhile, and his shows are never the same twice. I’ve seen him over 50 times, and it’s always different. He always gets me to laugh. Working with him every day, I still laugh.”
Reed’s comedic influences include Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. Being as popular and successful in the world of comedy as he is, it is easy to assume that more than a few up-and-coming comics in Central Pa. likely count him as one of their influences.
So, what does Reed think of the midstate’s comedy scene?
“Stitches [in Lancaster] is probably one of the best clubs there is,” he says. “It’s funny, this area for comedy is interesting because it strategically has clubs in certain areas. The scene is pretty good, but anyone out there who wants to do comedy needs to go out there and make their own scene. It’s a nice area to come in and out of to perform, and it’s been really good to me.”
Reed emphasizes the need to see comedy live to fully appreciate it.
“I’m not a baseball fan, so I’m not going to watch it on TV,” he says. “But if you take me to the park, and I’m sitting there in the stadium with all these people, looking at the perfect grass, with all the food and the sound, now I’m caught up in it. Comedy is the same way. Just because we have all this modern technology, don’t cheat yourself by not going to see it live. And you know what? It’s here in this area.”
To see Reed live and in person, check out his website (imearldavidreed.com) for upcoming show dates, and be sure to follow him on Twitter, @earldavidreed.
Also, as the non-Amish half of The Black Amish Tour, Reed will be appearing with Raymond the Amish Comic at Stitches, located at the Lancaster Host Resort, on May 17 and 18.
“What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” ~ Steve Martin
The Harrisburg Comedy Zone
There’s a rawness and a purity to comedy at its most basic beginnings, when punch lines hit softer, premises collapse, deliveries lack refinement and the feeling of crickets in place of laughter either motivates or dissuades those who pick up the microphone and stand in front of the spot light.
But in defiance of the flops and the false starts, there are also flashes of brilliance and more than a few sparks of the electric feel that live comedy creates.
Open-mic nights – it’s the alpha as well as the omega of all stand up jokes and acts. It’s where all the kinks get worked out, and the funny is born. Long live the open-mic nights, because without them, stand up comedy would be lost.
Every Thursday evening, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., The Harrisburg Comedy Zone – a staple of the Central Pa. comedy scene, located just off I-83 in New Cumberland – puts on one of the most popular open-mic nights in the midstate.
Hosted by Steve Marroni since 2009, the price of admission is free, and as many as 20 or more comics – some more experienced than others – take the stage.
Some weeks only 15 people show up, 12 of them being comedians themselves, to see the acts. Other weeks, it can be a full house.
“Like any open-mic, it’s a venue for new comedians to come out and get a feel for what it’s like to be up on stage in a real comedy club,” explains Marroni. “They get to work out their material here. A lot of times, guys will come in and kill for the first time, and think that they have the hang of this comedy thing. But that material was what they were working on for years, and the second time they go up, they realize that it’s not so easy.”
Marroni adds, “It’s a free show for everybody – people can come in, hang out and have fun. We encourage the audience to be very supportive of the comics though, and I think the audience comes in with that expectation. You know, some of the comics are going to be good, while others are working out material, and they aren’t that good. …There’s a purity in the open-mic night in that the only thing preventing someone from getting up on stage is raw ambition.”
Keith Paradise, an open-mic night regular for the past two years and certainly one of the more polished comedians, describes what it’s like at the center of attention on Thursdays at The Harrisburg Comedy Zone.
“I equate it to being on a roller coaster,” he says. “When you’re waiting in line to get on the roller coaster, you get butterflies and some nerves. It all kind of crescendos when you sit in that seat and you’re going up that first hill. Then the minute you cut loose is very much the same as picking up the mic out of the stand. You’re going to have some highs and some lows, some dips that are expected and some dips that are unexpected. When you put the mic back in the stand, it’s like when a roller coaster comes to a stop, and you put up the safety bar. If you’re meant to do it, the first thought that hits your mind is ‘Damn, I can’t wait to do it again.’”
Marroni (who recognizes Bill Cosby as his biggest influence) and Paradise (who looks to Lewis Black, Louis C.K. and Sam Kinison for comedic inspiration) agree that the comedy scene in Central Pa. can certainly hold its own.
“It’s surprisingly big, especially with people who are up-and-coming comics,” Marroni says. “A lot of people are surprised we get so many comics at the open-mic night and that there is so much support for it.”
“I think it’s growing,” says Paradise. “I used to live in D.C. until I got a job around here. I think, per capita, on a comic for comic and venue for venue basis, guys in Harrisburg are as good, if not a little bit better than, as what I’ve seen in D.C.”
After witnessing hundreds, if not thousands, of open-mic acts as host and performing on stage himself over the years, Marroni offers one final thought about stand up comedy.
“Stand up and jazz are the two uniquely American art forms,” he says. “I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who talked about the musical quality of stand up, the ebb and flow of getting the audience laughing and then bringing them back down. You just try to control the rhythm of the whole thing. I, unfortunately, have a long way to go because I quit the clarinet in fourth grade on my orthodontist’s recommendation.”
The Harrisburg Comedy Zone offers a three-act comedy show with an opener, a feature and a nationally known headliner every Friday and Saturday night. Visit their website at harrisburgcomedyzone.com for the full schedule.
“If you tell a joke in the forest, but nobody laughs, was it a joke?” ~ Steven Wright