Funny Business

Once upon a time Houston was a hot spot for comedy clubs. Now it's anybody's guess on who'll turn out on any given night

"Humor is a response to frustration."

-- Kurt Vonnegut

***

Once upon a time Houston was a hot spot for comedy clubs. Now it's anybody's guess on who'll turn out on any given night.
Daniel Kramer
Once upon a time Houston was a hot spot for comedy clubs. Now it's anybody's guess on who'll turn out on any given night.
Paul Oddo does comedy because...
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Paul Oddo does comedy because...
..."it's the only thing that feels right."
Photos by Daniel Kramer
..."it's the only thing that feels right."
Bill Hicks is one of a handful of comedy legends who came through Houston's Comedy Workshop.
Courtesy of Jay Lee
Bill Hicks is one of a handful of comedy legends who came through Houston's Comedy Workshop.
Mo Amer's stay out on the road paid off; he attracted the interest of Dave Chappelle.
Daniel Kramer
Mo Amer's stay out on the road paid off; he attracted the interest of Dave Chappelle.
Jokes that don't make it with the crowd are shredded onstage.
Daniel Kramer
Jokes that don't make it with the crowd are shredded onstage.
Attendance at the Proletariat's comedy show Mob Rule rises and falls from month to month.
Daniel Kramer
Attendance at the Proletariat's comedy show Mob Rule rises and falls from month to month.
Oddo's return to New York means he'll be parting company with his improv group -- at least for a while.
Daniel Kramer
Oddo's return to New York means he'll be parting company with his improv group -- at least for a while.

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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."

-- Alfred Hitchcock

***

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.

A two-drink minimum is standard, especially if the owner is giving away free tickets.

"You've got to paper the room [give out free tickets] or forget it, you're not going to stay in business for very long," says Danny Martinez, owner of The Comedy Showcase out on Fuqua.

Martinez says in the early '90s, the game totally changed. "It was difficult to sell it, when you can get it anywhere, you can get on cable, you can get on regular television, you can it anywhere -- free. What's the point?" says Martinez. "We had to add phone lines and hire telemarketers to start giving away parties to businesses, to colleges, give discounts to NASA and other industries around here."

Mark Babbit, former manager of the Laff Stop, says, "There were so many stand-up shows on TV that, my theory is, it depressed the market for live comedy." The rise of comedy specials on HBO, BET and especially the introduction of Comedy Central encouraged more people to try their hand at stand-up -- not always successfully. Pressed to fill time slots, the networks, Babbit says, "were just throwing people up there thinking that it was good for comedy, and it wasn't."

"I'd like to make you laugh for about ten minutes though I'm gonna be on for an hour."

-- Richard Pryor

***

Mark Babbit took over the Laff Stop in May 1995. He had never run a comedy club before, and the only experience he had was in bars and dance clubs. Babbit says he was determined to rekindle Houston's interest in stand-up.

"There was a learning curve on my part, and by going to different comedy festivals and looking at tapes and talking to bigger agents and listening to advice from the manager who was there, who had experience with comedy, I managed to learn quite a bit," he says. "I'd say between 1998 and 2002, we really hit our stride. We had a national reputation for good crowds and intelligent crowds."

The history of the Stop shows this appreciation. Comics such as Mitch Hedberg, Joe Rogan and Dane Cook all recorded albums there and the stage has been graced by many notables including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, David Cross, Elayne Boosler, Jim Gaffigan, Garofalo, and Butler. Almost as famous as the acts on the stage was the Stop's Monday night open mikes.

"Houston comics nationally have one of the highest reputations for quality of material; they're nationally known for that open mike," says Ralphie May, who got his start in Houston and says the open mike nights at the Laff Stop were one reason he moved here from Tennessee in 1990 and was able to go on to bigger things like Last Comic Standing.

"Any Monday night there will be 100 comedians doing spots -- that's crazy," says Ralphie. "It's unheard of," says Bob Biggerstaff, another local comedian who has traveled all over the country doing stand-up. Biggerstaff says comics in places like L.A. have to either call in advance for open mike time or put their names in a hat for a chance onstage. "They pick maybe ten people who get to do two minutes each," Biggerstaff says. "There is no crowd; they're horrible."

"When I first got there, [open mike] was doing $50 worth of business and there were about five people, and I was paying the bartender more than we were taking in in liquor. So, initially, I stopped it," Babbit says. He started it up again with about ten people and maybe $125 in business, Babbit says. "What I assumed, without a doubt, was that it was not only marginally profitable to do it, but additionally what it did was it created a camaraderie among comics."

Babbit says the open mike nights helped develop local talent along with his Black and Blue Shows or Showcase Shows on Wednesday or Sunday nights. The events would feature ten to 12 locals who would do ten to 15 minutes of material each, so Babbit could see if they were ready to host or feature in front of headlining acts.

Babbit says his priority was developing talent, not profits. As a result, he says, he had a falling-out with the Laff Stop's owner. He left, returning to comedy in December of 2003 when he opened The Improv, but left less than a year later in May of 2004, and now renovates hotels.

Eddie Brito worked his way up to assistant manager at the Laff Stop during Babbit's tenure, but left soon after new owner and manager Pete Prelli started. Brito was hired on as a sound guy at The Improv in 2003 on Babbit's recommendation and eventually became its manager.

The Improv is part of a chain of comedy clubs booked by a corporate office out of Los Angeles. The Improv's move into Houston affected mom-and-pop venues like the Stop, because with 17 venues throughout the country, The Improv can promise more than just a local booking.

Prelli says this has made it harder for him to book larger acts and that he has done his best to keep the Laff Stop open.

Many local comics, however, don't see it that way. They say the reason the Laff Stop is struggling is that Prelli isn't really interested in comedy. They point to the fact that he doesn't ever show up to open mike nights, with telling results.

Twice during the Houston Rockets playoffs, the television behind the stage at the Laff Stop was tuned to the game as comedians competed for the crowd's attention. Prelli says he would have had the television turned off if he'd known. He says he doesn't go because "I don't want to make the young guys nervous." Along with not being around as much as Babbit, Prelli also canned the Black and Blue shows. Oddo says locals would always try to convince him not to, but "he wouldn't budge."

In the initial stages of reporting for this article, there was no mention of the resurrection of anything like the Black and Blue shows, and the only other weeknight the Stop was open was Tuesdays, for karaoke. Just before publication, however, Prelli told the Houston Press that he was interested in starting up Showcase shows again.

Sean Rouse says Prelli just shouldn't be running a comedy club.

"He should be running a prison rodeo," Rouse says. "He adopted the golden African baby. He walked into a fucking gold mine, is what he did, and then he fucked it up."

Rouse got his start during the days of Babbit and is now a national act touring the country with the likes of Dave Attell and Doug Stanhope. He says his connections to Babbit and his tendency to voice his disgust with Prelli got him banned from performing at the Laff Stop.

"I hate going back there now because it's my home club and then when I go back, I can't work it and I just go there and I just get drunk and pissed off and bitter, and then it always turns into a bad night," Rouse says. "He has no interest. It depresses me. It sucks."

Several comics speak highly of Babbit. Comedian Sarah Tollemache, who started doing open mikes back in 1998, credits Babbit with encouraging her as she started out. Babbit had a reputation for always being at the Laff Stop. "I feel very fortunate that I started when I did as far as Babbit being there and having that system, because he would watch the open mike, he would watch most of them and you knew he was watching, so it mattered," says local comedian Mike MacRae, who has appeared on David Letterman.

But like Prelli, the legendary Babbit has his share of detractors as well.

MacRae says Babbit was also looking for his own opportunities. "Mark had his personal motivations as well; I mean he wanted to manage [comedians]. It's not like it was completely an altruism, but it was still a fun environment," he says.

The Babbit era wasn't great for everyone, especially if you weren't a favorite like Rouse or MacRae.

"I respected [Babbit] as a businessman," says Rodney Yarbrough, a.k.a. Little Brough. Yarbrough says Babbit never booked him and it wasn't until he won Houston's Funniest Person in 2005 that he started performing at the Laff Stop, when Prelli was there.

"Some people have different views of Mark, and it matters if he helped you or if he didn't," says Mo Amer, who was featured in the Press's story "So, Did You Hear the One About the Funny Muslim?"[By Michael Serazio, April 15, 2004]. Amer has gone on to tour internationally and will be featured in Allah Made Me Funny, an upcoming Kings of Comedy-style movie produced by Dave Chappelle.

Amer says his choice to stay out on the road kept him out of Babbit's eye and therefore off the Laff Stop's stage. "[Babbit] took me off of a Black and Blue Show and canceled me, and he goes, 'well, you weren't here on Monday night.' I said, 'Mark, I was working; I was in Oklahoma working shit gigs trying to get on the road,' and he told me, 'I want you here on Monday nights.'" Amer says that after that he didn't get gigs at the Laff Stop until Prelli took over and he's not alone.

Amer says that to be successful, comedians have to take matters into their own hands. He moved to Comedy Showcase and is grateful for the help owner Danny Martinez gave him to help him improve his comedy. (Amer even married Martinez's daughter.)

But Amer says as helpful as Martinez was, in the end it was his own decisions that helped him succeed.

"It comes down to your pen, your work ethic and how often you want to work. You make a choice of how much you want to work," says Amer.

"If you find yourself lost in the woods, fuck it, build a house. 'Well, I was lost, but now I live here. I have severely improved my predicament!'" -- Mitch Hedberg

***

This kid has been up onstage at Walter's on Washington for at least 20 minutes and the only people laughing are his friends sitting in front of the stage. The audience knows they are his friends because every joke he tells is prefaced by his pointing to one of them and saying, "Hey, do you remember that time you..."

None of the local comics know who he is and his name is really not important. He will be forever known to local comedians as "that jackass who got on stage at the Todd Barry show."

Barry is a nationally touring comedian; he's been on Letterman, writes for the New York Times and was a writer for The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central. Barry is doing a one-night gig at Walter's tonight booked by someone who let their friend (a.k.a. "the jackass") start the night off even though he has never been onstage before.

"This is my first time doing this," the kid says over and over, as if the audience should be impressed. They're not, especially Barry, who tells the other openers, Oddo and Tollemache, to take only ten minutes each; they were supposed to do 20 to 30 minutes. Barry is most likely worried they will suck as much as this kid.

How the kid ended up onstage is a good question. A better one might be: Why is a well-known comedian like Barry playing a bar, not a comedy club?

More acts have begun booking themselves into bars and rock clubs. Comedians of Comedy, consisting of national acts such as Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt, toured the country hitting up rock clubs including Houston's now defunct Mary Jane's. Barry and David Cross have chosen to tour bars as well along with other comedians who are carving a path similar to that of punk rock in the '70s. "If punk was a reaction to disco, then the Comedians of Comedy is a reaction to Last Comic Standing," says Oddo.

Locally, comedians have started opening up their own rooms at venues such as Rudyard's and the Proletariat. The Rudyard's Comedy Werkshop mirrors what a weekend show at the Stop or Improv would do, only with all local comedians. Other than the Laff Stop open mikes, comics have little opportunity to get onstage. Brito is rarely given the authority to book whomever he wants, and most say Prelli and Martinez use a rotating cast of favorites. Prelli says this is because he isn't going to put green talent on the stage; however, Oddo would argue his decision is the reason he doesn't have more comedians to choose from.

"It's great to be here. I thank you. Ah, I've been on the road doing comedy for ten years now, so bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time." -- Bill Hicks

***

In high school, Oddo tried to make people laugh, but there wasn't anything formal about it; it was just what he did. After graduation, he went on to art school in Sarasota, Florida in 1999, but decided he didn't want art as a career.

He tried being an English major at the University of Houston the next year, but that tapered off and ended in 2002. He was 20 when he saw comic Joe Rogan perform at the Laff Stop. "It just clicked in me, like, well, I could do this. "

His dad owns a trucking company -- where Oddo worked year-round -- and his mom teaches art at an elementary school in Alvin, and if they couldn't share his sudden enthusiasm, at least they supported him.

Methodical in his approach, before he ever took the stage, Oddo read two books about stand-up and memorized a George Carlin DVD.

"I put it on my computer and I'd have it running, and then I'd have my word processor open and I typed, line for line, his entire hour set," Oddo says. "I was just interested in the writing aspect of it."

Oddo saw three or four open mike shows at the Laff Stop before ever signing up to perform. He was successful almost immediately, entering Houston's Funniest Person Contest and tying for first place in 2001, his first year of competition.

After that, he was able to choose his time slot in open mikes because he was now considered a "pro." As a newbie, he would usually perform after midnight.

"I'd go outside after I got my time slot -- it'd be about one in the morning -- and I'd go out in my truck and sleep for four hours or write," Oddo says.

Since then he has done well enough to be named Best Comedian in the Press's 2006 Best of HoustonĀ©. He not only started Mob Rule but also The Greatest Thing in the History of the Word, an improv comedy troupe he cofounded while training in New York with Upright Citizens Brigade.

Now his two younger brothers -- Alex, a UT student, and Chris, an on-and-off UH student -- are both members of their brother's improv troupe. Neither does stand-up, though.

Tonight, Oddo is talking to another comedian about the lineup at the Proletariat. It's the first Wednesday in April and the place isn't packed, but it's definitely a better showing than last month's Mob Rule. One heckler is soon quieted, and the night is a success. "I really hope this works out and continues after I leave," Oddo says.

New York is Oddo's next stop because he doesn't want to go out on the road, afraid he'll become embittered.

"When you work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you may as well be a TV turned on to Comedy Central and in a bar or some crazy redneck town you never heard of, you may as well have a puppet up there -- I mean, nothing against puppets -- but it doesn't matter, there is no value put in it." In New York, Oddo says, the craft of comedy is respected as an art form.

He talks about a show he did in the small town of San Angelo, Texas where he met a young bartender who said he wanted to do stand-up.

"I was like, 'Well, is there an open mike here?' and he said, 'Eh, maybe once a month they'll do that.' I said, 'Okay, well, you need to move. You need to move from here, go to Houston, go to Austin, just get the hell out of here. Like, what is there here for you?' and he said, 'Well, me and my girlfriend live here.' 'You know, if that's what's important to you, then the both of y'all move.' I told him, 'You have to either make it here or just leave,' and my suggestion was, 'Just leave because there is no opportunity for you here.' He said, 'I'm just going to see how things pan out here.'

"I went up to New York, and I was talking to people up there about the whole scene and I did some open mikes and things like that, and then I came back to Houston and it was just the same old thing that I had been doing before. I didn't get any work anywhere. I was doing open mikes here and there and this and that," Oddo says.

"Essentially, what I discovered about myself was that I was that guy and that I was giving him the advice that I should've been giving myself, which was if it means something like that to you, you need to go where it's happening."

Wanted: Audience Members

Comedy Nights by Little Brough

Sundays at 8 p.m.

Free

Mike's Ultimate, 8670 Hwy 6

713-855-1194

Open Mike

Mondays at 7:30 p.m.

Free

Laff Stop, 526 Waugh

www.laffstop.com

Rudyard's Comedy Werkshop

Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Free

Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh

www.myspace.com/rudzcomedywerk

shop

Mob Rule

First Wednesday of every month at 10:30 p.m.

Free

The Proletariat, 903 Richmond

www.myspace.com/mob_rule_wednesdays

The Greatest Thing in the History of the World

(Long-form improv troupe)

Various dates and locations

www.myspace.com/houstonlongform

Comedy Clubs

The Comedy Showcase

11460 Fuqua St.

281-481-1188

www.thecomedyshowcase.com

The Improv

7620 Katy Frwy.

713-333-8800

www.improv2.com/houston.html

The Laff Spot

17776 Hwy 249

713-955-9200

www.laffspot.com

The Laff Stop

526 Waugh

713-524-2333

www.laffstop.com

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