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"Humor is a response to frustration."
Local comedian Paul Oddo is leaning against the bar talking to the bartender at the Proletariat on Richmond. He's there for Mob Rule, a showcase of local comics on the first Wednesday of the month. Comedians bring only new material onstage, where there is a microphone, a stool and a paper shredder. If the audience laughs at a joke, it's a keeper; if they hate it, it goes directly to the shredder.
At about 10:30 p.m., there are probably about 20 people inside, including the employees. Oddo, 27, is both a performer and a cofounder of Mob Rule. The Friendswood High graduate is probably best known for stories like his frustrations with self-checkout machines at the grocery store. After a machine tells him to re-scan his item for the fifth time, he yells, "I did, you fucking robot!"
But no one hears his grocery store joke tonight. There will be no shredding and there will be no jokes, because not enough of anybody shows up. At 11 p.m., Oddo tells the comics it's canceled.
Eddie Brito, manager of The Improv, over on Katy Freeway, says the fact that Mob Rule had a good draw one month and not the next is all part of comedy in Houston. "These guys are creative; I can tell you right now, I doubt many cities have something like [Mob Rule] in their town," says Brito. "We take it for granted because we see it day in and day out."
Houston has a history of providing fertile ground for comedians to get their starts. Its roster of stars includes Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo and, more recently, Last Comic Standing's Ralphie May and Sean Rouse, who appeared on Dave Attell's Insomniac tour on Comedy Central. There are hundreds more trying to follow their lead.
They do this at open mike nights -- for which they get paid nothing -- in the hope that they can work up to paid weekend spots. In the meantime, they work other jobs to get by, while they pursue dreams of stardom.
Oddo has worked in his father's trucking firm, and been in and out of college a couple times, chasing what he says "is the only thing that feels right, 100 percent, no doubt to it."
In the late '80s and early '90s, going to comedy clubs in Houston was the in thing to do; lines stretched out the door and down the street. Now, owners struggle to stay busy as the demand for live comedy waxes and wanes for no apparent reason on any given day. Comedians looking to make it big say they must head to New York or Los Angeles because Houston can't provide them with enough opportunities to survive.
"You can't be doing stand-up here in [Houston] and have some guy who books David Letterman watch your set and then say, 'Oh, hey man, send me a tape' or 'Come in tomorrow and bring in some writing samples,'" says Oddo. "In New York you can and in L.A. you can, too. You bump into agents and all types of things like that, it's just where it is."
Oddo has been to New York before; he's heading back there again at the end of the month.
"Television is like the invention of indoor plumbing. It didn't change people's habits. It just kept them inside the house."
The Comedy Workshop was Houston's first notable comedy club. It was the breeding ground for Hicks, Kinison, Butler, Garofalo and James Ladmirault, known then as Jimmy Pineapple. "You could feel the energy," Ladmirault says. "When that room was packed, you could feel it."
A dry cleaners now sits at the corner of Shepherd and San Felipe where the Workshop once stood. "The parking lot that we used to hang out and drink and all that is a used car lot," says Ladmirault. After the Workshop closed in the early '90s, he says, many comedians headed over to the Laff Stop, where open mikes continued. Paying customers packed into the club on West Gray.
Open mike night moved over to the Laff Stop, which itself recently moved from its 26-year location in River Oaks to the corner of Waugh and Allen Parkway. The event is now free, but even that hasn't changed the fact that most nights now there are more comedians than audience members.
This isn't something unique to Houston. All across the country, comedy clubs are being forced to do more, not only to pull in audiences to free open mike nights -- if they have them -- but even for their regular weekend shows.
The comedy club formula is pretty much the same everywhere for weekend shows. A host does five minutes of material before introducing the night's acts, which generally include the headliner and the "feature" or warm-up act that goes on before the headliner. In Houston, hosts get paid around $200 while a headliner can make $600 for a weekend spot. But such spots are given only to those with experience or who have won recent comedy competitions.