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Honing humor: Up-and-coming comedians showcased in Ann Arbor

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published February 28, 2013

For most of the day, the empty box office and smattering of signed headshots of comedy giants in Seva’s entryway are just passing peculiarities for customers walking in and out of the vegetarian restaurant. Norm Macdonald, Jon Stewart and Tim Allen smile unnoticed from their frames.

Perhaps customers don’t want to stop in the doorway scattered with wet newspaper; perhaps these comedians aren’t of interest; perhaps their faces — not yet the “Saturday Night Live” cast member, the political satirist, The Tool Man — are too unrecognizably young in their photos to catch an eye.

It’s only later when the dinner crowd dwindles and the waiters start wiping the tables that these black-and-white headshots start to take on a focused, cultural relevance. Beneath the floor of this distinctly Ann Arbor restaurant is the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase — a basement, a gritty nook of unrefined creativity, a true club. What could epitomize comedy in Ann Arbor more?

Club owner Roger Feeny opened Mainstreet Comedy Showcase in 1984 and renamed it the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase three years later when the club moved to its current location on East Liberty Street. The location reflects, or is maybe a result of, the club’s demographic: Four blocks from campus, the Comedy Showcase is a long-enough walk to ward off the busy, nervous or uncommitted students, within reach for the brave ones and more than accessible to Ann Arborites.

An outlet to develop talent

Student or not, for those that show up to open mic night or to emcee a one-nighter for a big name working on material, that wall of famous past-performers — going by the box office, down the stairs and then onto the tiny stage — becomes a kind of symbol for what could be given enough stage time, enough flubbing punch lines and, hopefully, enough validating laughter.

Young comedians in Ann Arbor don’t come to be with the best; they come to be where some of the best learned to fail, be funny and work a crowd. It’s one of the many small clubs sandwiched between New York and Los Angeles that doesn’t beat around the bush about its focus on cultivating talent. Their website states that one of its central goals is to feature "the best of the rising young stars in the comedy business.”

It’s no wonder that the aspiring Louis C.K.s and Mitch Hedbergs flock there on Wednesday nights for open mics, which the Showcase calls “Comedy Jamms” — a night exhibiting the promising and the not-so-promising, but an essential cog in the great wheel of stand-up comedy nonetheless.

“As a club and as a business, I know I’m never going to make money on an open mic night,” Feeny said. “But as a comedy club, you have to have an outlet to develop talent.”

Potential participants call in on Thursday to put their name on the list, and then 12 names are randomly chosen to perform. On Saturday, they find out if their name was picked. If there’s enough time at the end of night, a few people on a standby list might get their five minutes.

“It’s all local and that’s where you get your talent from. Somebody somewhere has got some talent and is gonna be a headliner someday,” Feeny said. “Maybe they won’t get rich and famous, but they’ll be able to make a living doing what they love doing, and that’s what life is.”

But open mic night is not just a display of people new to the scene, and those new to the scene are not necessarily in the prime of their life. Looking in the back of the room at the comedians waiting to go up, whispering jokes to themselves, flipping through notebooks or just talking about past shows, it’s hard to tell who’s fresh and who’s a local veteran trying out new material.

Some of the young kids are polished and confident; some of the 60-year-olds stutter over notecards.

Russel Rabb, a 20-something Ann Arbor resident, is a regular to the Showcase.