“Comedy exists in this city, and it’s good!” exclaimed Geoff Gauchet, a local stand-up comedian, as though hoping this message might reverberate throughout the city.
Live comedy on a local level has been evolving in New Orleans for the past 5 to 6 years, filling a hole that’s been open since Ellen Degeneres was an up-and-coming comedian in the city. Up until a handful of years ago, “if you wanted comedy, you had to know someone in the comedy scene [in order to find a show],” explained Mark Caesar, a veteran of comedy in the city who’s been performing for more than half his life (and he’s only 31).
Because of this lack of a thriving comedy culture and an inability (for most) to make a living off comedy, once a comedian becomes big enough, he or she usually leaves the city. “No one wants to move away from New Orleans, so if the scene becomes equals to Denver, Atlanta, Austin, then we won’t have to leave,” said Geoff, who runs the website 504comedy.com, which presents a concise list of shows throughout the city (most of them free) to make comedy as accessible as possible.
Although the majority of comedians in the city are not making much money (if any) off their comedy, this isn’t the case for everyone; there seems to be a divide in the scene. Although this division is described differently depending on who you ask, Mark described the divide as simply between “who gets paid and who doesn’t get paid.”
So as I explored comedy in the city, I found lots of free shows, such as the weekly ones found on Geoff’s site, but as I continued to be referred from one show to the next, I started discovering shows with covers, such as the one put on by Black Girl Giggles, a comedy collective of (as you might guess) black women, and I eventually ended up at The Ave, a comedy venue opened by Mark in partnership with Ariana Newman, that charges fees comparable to other live performances while still managing to pack the house.
Now, it’s important at this point to hit the pause button and focus on The Ave for a minute, because it addresses a problem repeatedly mentioned to me by comedians. When it comes to creating a sustainable comedy scene here in the city, as said by Paul Oswell, comedian and host of two weekly shows, “It’s impossible without a comedy club.”
“We’re such a small scene and ultimately have the same goal -- for our shows to be good. To have our shows succeed, we need other shows to succeed,” explained Geoff. So for comedy in the city to succeed, a comedy club like The Ave needs to succeed.
“Before [The Ave], New Orleans never had a comedy club at all,” said Shervey the Comedian before taking the stage at The Ave during its first outdoor show.
So what will it take for comedy to continue to thrive in New Orleans? “Unification,” Mark and Ariana reply in unison. “Our goal is to unify the comedy scene by booking everybody. Whoever wants comedy, come here. I don’t care if your comedy is in Arabic; there’s an audience for that,” said Mark.
“We’re taking the focus away from food, music, sports, and bringing people here. It requires a unique strategy. This is a trial space,” said Mel Cordier, Marketing Director of The Ave, on continuing to evolve the venue as it enters its second month of putting on shows.
Comedy in New Orleans isn’t exactly infantile; dedicated comedians, such as Mark, Geoff, Paul, Shervey, and many others, have been grinding for a while now. But it’s still young, in its developmental years, and, therefore, in need of support.
This is where you, my dedicated and lovely reader, come in. Instead of going out on a Friday night to check out live music, why not catch some laughs instead? Or pre-game with comedy, because the shows tend to be early anyway, and bask in supporting your local community while nurturing your funny bone.
After catching a comedy show almost every night for a couple of weeks, I can confidently say that I tapped into a more light-hearted part of myself and inevitably laughed a lot. There’s a magic that comes along with laughing with strangers, in partaking in a shared experience amongst audience and performer.
“Life is hard enough. I have mom issues. If I talk about stuff with my mom, my kids, and make you laugh about it, then I’m doing alright. It’s like a therapy session,” said Ashleigh Branch, a member of Black Girl Giggles.
And who couldn’t benefit from a bit more therapy in their life? Who doesn’t need to be reminded that, as declared by Shervey, “Everybody has a crazy person inside of them!”
“It’s almost more of a public service than art. Whether you’re left or right, things suck right now . . . People want the escape,” said Geoff.
People crave the ability to laugh at the absurdity of life. “We need it in New Orleans,” said Mark. Laughing about 6-foot holes in the ground, covered with plywood and a singular cone, or describing the NOPD “like if you took everyone who worked in Kinko’s and gave them a gun” makes existence more digestible and helps to alleviate tension. (That NOPD description was delivered by Chris Lane while hosting Comic Strip, a show that pairs stand-up with burlesque to create a quintessentially New Orleanian comedy experience.)
Comedy provides a platform to talk and laugh about subjects that would be untouchable otherwise, helping us to understand and accept the hard, strange, confusing aspects of being a human while reminding us to not take life so seriously. If that isn’t a compelling reason to go to a comedy show, I don’t know what is.
Black Girl Giggles, a comedy troupe based in New Orleans, prepares for their second annual comedy festival, taking place during Essence Fest.
It all began when local comic and co-founder Geneva Joy was offered to do a show at Essence last year that fell through. “We saw this as a perfect opportunity to do a show with all black women since I knew other comics were coming to town. Also, other comics go on vacation during Essence, so we had our choice of mics. It just fit,” said Geneva Joy.
“When we started, it was just 7 or 8 of us, and then all these other black women started reaching out. They were like, ‘Nothing like this existed before,’” explained Sierra Fitzgerald, member of BGG.
The festival will run July 4 - 9 and will feature shows at various venues throughout the city, with performances by comediennes of color hailing from New Orleans and around the country. Cost of shows range from free to $15.
“The purpose of the festival and collective is to create a space for ourselves. Space isn’t created for people who look like us,” explained Camille Roane, co-founder of BGG.
“[Last year], we put the festival together with gum, spit, dirt, that stuff ants make,” said Ashleigh Branch, member of BGG. This time around, after a year of putting on shows and carving a space for themselves in the comedy scene of the city, they’re much more prepared.
You can find more information on the festival at blackgirlgiggles.com/the-festival.