It's hard to argue that the comedy club isn't going the way of the dinosaur, right? Your life is already littered with SO MUCH COMEDY, and in more mediums than most people can handle. YouTube stars vomit content just begging for your attention, you've got piles of unread memes streaming across your Facebook feed daily, Twitter is actively spitting out new killer material every nanosecond.
The sheer volume of humor (both good and irredeemably terrible) that you have instant access to is almost staggering, thinking in terms of entertainment history. So it'd be easy just to say "Live comedy? That's a game of the past, old man!" Despite these truths, Houston's very own Secret Group is one of the many live venues that are bucking that mentality.
Back in the day, comedy clubs were the only places to see a living, breathing, performing stand-up comic (outside of strip clubs, perhaps). But those clubs, which did big business, had strict rules and high cover charges and gave very little freedom to the performers. Woody Allen, now known as one of the greatest film directors of all time, started his journey as a club comic. But after a few years of massive critical success, Allen walked away from the art form, never to return. A big part of the reason for that self-imposed exile was his harsh work schedules, which he describes as about three weeks in a town, doing two shows seven nights a week, with three on weekends. Then he'd be shipped off to the next berg's chuckle hut to do it again. The comic had no say in the matter, and if he wanted to work, that's how the system churned.
For the audience members, club comedy meant that you'd better get ready to drop some dough if you wanted to laugh. The term "two drink mic" is a common memory from the club era, and it means every person must purchase at least two drinks from the bar to watch a set. Not unreasonable, until you realize you might be paying upwards of 20 bucks for a beer! Unfair? Sure. But when it was the only game in town, a club could do what it pleased. So after forking over 35-40 bucks per ticket, now you're getting slapped with upwards of 40 dollars extra, just to watch. That system has been despised by comedy fans forever, and comics don't love it either. Stand-ups, especially those in the "featured" or "opener" stage, are hungry for as many different kinds of people to watch their work as possible. Comics live off the feedback a crowd gives them; as most will tell you, laughter is what makes or breaks a joke. The quality of the comedy is what matters, not whether you bought drinks or not.
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The Secret Group, and other DIY comedy collectives like them (Rec Room, Station Theater, BETA, The Joke Joint and CSz Houston among them), have their minds focused on the stuff that matters: the material, the performers, the fun. "Two Drink Mics" are going the way of the cocktail waitress and those classic '80s brick-wall backgrounds. Houston's new spots for laughs are usually BYOB or donation bars. Forget big cover charges, or huge markups by clubs — most local acts charge on the pay-what-you-can model, and often don't go above ten bucks.
And club owners are no longer faceless gatekeepers — they're fellow comics, booking shows for themselves and their friends. On the local level, we're seeing a boom in quality comedy because more and more often, audiences are feeling a part of Houston's comedy scene and want to see it thrive. Even visiting stand-ups, headliners with bigger names, TV credits and national profiles, are more and more often hunting for the smaller venue with the better crowd — young people educated on comedy, people who are already into your off-kilter style of wit, and are not just club hoppers looking for generic entertainment to kill the night.
It takes a lot to get potential fans to actually leave their house and go see some stand-up, or improv, or sketch. After all: Why make that commitment when you can catch a comic online for (essentially) free? But despite the prevalence of free comedy online, people are making a conscious decision. They are voting with their attendance, saying the want to enjoy comedy in that classic way — they want to laugh with company.
There's something otherworldly about a group of strangers laughing together, something impossible to replicate through your phone. DIY comedy venues, much like their '80s punk counterparts, are making that commercial comedy experience logically and financially possible by making the barriers to entry almost negligible. And the result is clear: Houstonians seem to be sampling live comedy like never before. So keep those ticket prices low, keep the BYOB signs up and keep the comics in control. Now let's go have a laugh!