It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday in the South Side. Club Café, tucked on South 12th Street, is hosting its monthly Loaded Show highlighting some of the area’s brightest stand-up talent. A few rows of chairs and tables pushed next to booths and the limited number of bar stools make finding room to sit (or stand) difficult. But it’s comfortable. There’s an air of excitement and exclusivity for the night ahead.

On stage, Ray Zawodni  is talking about Pittsburgh’s tendency to treat its newscasters as celebrities after his uncle came to his house to tell him about a chance encounter.

“I ran into Bob Pompeani from over on 2! Ray, you’re not gonna believe it, he’s standing outside talking to me for fifteen to twenty minutes like he’s a regular guy like you or me!”

The crowd bursts into laughter. That could be anyone’s uncle in the room.

The Loaded Show began this past year when comedian Bill Crawford of the WDVE Morning Show (who has achieved some national recognition in his own right), wanted to find a better way to showcase local comedic talent than bringing them on his morning show.

Ray Zawodni performing stand-up at the October Loaded Show at Club Cafe.
Ray Zawodni performing stand-up at the October Loaded Show at Club Cafe.

“It’s difficult to come in early in the morning and do clean stand-up material, sitting down, for three people,” he says. “We wanted to get them in their natural habitat, so we picked an awesome room for comedy: Club Café.

“The goal was to take recorded clips from local comedians and play them on our iHeart channel just like the clips we play from national acts,” says Crawford. “There are comics in Pittsburgh that are just as good as anyone on Comedy Central. Our goal was to introduce them to the DVE listeners, who love comedy and get more people out to see shows around the city.”

These days it’s easy to find a live comedy event in Pittsburgh. Dedicated comedy theaters host live performances three nights a week. Open mics take place across the city six nights a week with some venues hosting multiple mics. New and existing improv teams perform regularly while classes are growing with more offerings.

But it wasn’t always that way. Randy Kirk, manager at the Cabaret and Backstage Bar at Theater Square for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, coordinates the Pittsburgh Improv Jam and is one of the founders of Arcade Theater. While he has been involved in various aspects of Pittsburgh comedy and the improv scene for more than a decade, Kirk has noticed a definite upward trend.

“A lot of us were doing comedy before there were any regular venues predicated outside the Funny Bone, which is strictly stand up, and then the Improv which is pretty corporate and also stand up,” he says. “And to be able to have these different performance bases, it’s good particularly for improvisers where there can be a community.”

A huge piece to the puzzle in recent years has been the growth of Arcade Comedy Theater, which will celebrate its third anniversary in February. Arcade was founded by Kirk, Jethro and Kristy Nolen, Mike Rubino and Abby Fudor. The group met at the Improv Jam where they discussed the prospects of having an active venue running improv on a more regular basis. As the idea materialized, Arcade was able to set up their downtown location through the support of the Cultural Trust.

As one of the more popular venues for comedy in Pittsburgh, Arcade offers live shows every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights with Thursdays coming soon. Shows include Comedy Royale, a “no holds barred improv competition” where Pittsburgh’s most talented short form improv comedians team up and compete in a series of games and scenes where the audience members decide the winners.

Knights of the Arcade, a live Dungeons and Dragons game played out on stage, puts the comedians and improvisers through a series of quests in the actual D&D format, again built entirely from audience suggestions and participation. You have to see it to believe (and appreciate) it.

Another, Dinner with the Nolens, has Jethro and Kristy together creating original scenes and characters on the spot in an impressive long-form show. Because of a heavy reliance on audience suggestions, no two shows are ever the same, making each night unpredictable. A September show featured the improv group Irony City. In the opening scene the trio were attempting to rob a bank, but were concerned about post Pirate-game traffic as no one would leave the game early because “it’s almost October . . . every game counts.”

While all of the growth and fostering of new platforms for comedy has been impressive and exciting, it’s important to note that Pittsburgh is still very much in the development stages of finding its own place in comedy from a national standpoint. Kristy Nolen describes it as predicting what your infant child will be like when they grow up. In that sense, it’s difficult to pin down a particular voice or form as being “Pittsburgh-style Comedy.”

The small, local references are unsurprisingly a big hit at any shows around the city. And the self-deprecating nature of Pittsburgh humor is something that sets it apart from other markets.

“I feel like Pittsburghers can laugh at themselves in a way that other markets may not be able to,” says Nolen. “I think other cities have tried to shed that skin quickly . . . where Pittsburghers are like ‘yeah that’s how we were, we love it!’ An older, still popular Tom Musial bit has him buy a new GPS for his father, only to find that the lifetime Pittsburgh resident has no idea where the device is trying to direct him (“I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 70 years, no one’s ever told me to get on an interstate to get to Swissvale!”). Naturally, Musial gets a “Pittsburgh plug-in” that directs his dad to “get awn the Parkway goin’ towards tahn . . . get off like your goin’ to Kennywood.”

Which is not to say that style of humor can’t hit with a wider, national audience. Swissvale’s Billy Gardell (of Mike and Molly) seems to find ways to make references to his hometown to a broader audience.

Getting in on the act

Not surprisingly, Nolen finds that most guests are pumped to support performers from their own backyard. Especially at a downtown venue like Arcade. And there’s plenty of opportunity for more newcomers. Arcade offers classes that vary from beginner to more advanced forms and concepts and have expanded to sketch writing, musical improv and stand-up. The steady growth shows the enthusiasm for live comedy in Pittsburgh for performers as well as audience members.

“We started with six people in our first class three years ago and now we have 24 people with our next level one class and we have two classes going on,” says Kristy Nolen.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Nolen and her husband moved back after stints in Chicago and Los Angeles for 20 years pursuing comedy and acting. While larger markets provide great learning and career opportunities, it’s not easy to break through to full-time performing.

Nolen describes a time when most regional opportunities were cast from Los Angeles or New York. Most comedians made a name for themselves by touring the country and were booked at local venues. And in many ways that hasn’t really changed.

“Those bigger cities will always be a draw for people who want to make a living in comedy and its related industries (film, TV),” says Brian Gray, a 12-year improv veteran and teacher, Pittsburgh Comedy Festival Director and board president of Comedy Arts Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is developing in all of those areas, with regular film and TV production to echo our growing comedy scene, but those who make a living at it are still the hardest working people I know. They hustle, and they travel.”

But the landscape as a whole has changed to the point where leaving town is not always the answer, or even the desire of those who pursue comedy as a serious hobby. Pittsburgh is fostering an identity as a place where comedy can still be a realistic pursuit, even if it’s not for making a living.

“Pittsburgh is a great mix of a city where it is not so oversaturated that you can actually get stage time, but it is still a big enough city that there are interesting venues where you can put up a show and get a decent crowd to come see it,” says Gray. “It makes it a compelling place to be performing comedy right now.”

The Pittsburgh Comedy Festival grew from an idea in 2013 when two local stand-ups approached Gray about incorporating improv into plans for an independently produced stand-up festival. With support from the volunteer staff, the arts community, partners, sponsors and grants, PCF will continue to be a yearly event.

The improv group Bombardo (with Aubrey Plaza) headlined the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival.
The improv group Bombardo (with Aubrey Plaza) headlined the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Photo by Henderson Gomes

“We wanted an event that could shine a bright light on the local scene by bringing some of those big acts to increase interest, and pair them with phenomenal lesser-known acts from throughout the country as well as some of the best performers in Pittsburgh.”

The festival boasts intimacy, diversity, variety and a community focus. All festival performances are at the Henry Heymann Theater, which has a capacity of 200. Acts include improvisers and stand-ups, but have featured craft-making, music, magic and dancing. Run through the nonprofit Comedy Arts Pittsburgh, PCF  headliners this past year included Todd Glass and the improv group Bombardo, which featured Aubrey Plaza.

“We keep getting professionals coming through who cannot stop gushing about the quality of work and openness of the people in this scene,” says Gray.

Though Pittsburgh has a rich, 30-year history of comedy, it’s only been within the last few years that a tipping point has occurred. The recent resurgence has lead to more comedy theaters, multiple open mics and more opportunities for students as the city begins to carve out its own niche in the landscape.

“I see the future of Pittsburgh comedy as progressing in a few ways: for one, more of the city being engaged in live comedy. Right now, it’s one of our best-kept secrets, and we are eager to spread the word,” says Gray. “Another is improving the diversity of points of view represented on stage. And finally, continuing to define what Pittsburgh comedy means to the rest of the country as we mature as a comedy scene.”

Ian Mikrut

Ian Mikrut is a writer, proud Pittsburgh native and Grove City grad. When he's not at local concerts or trying in vain to improve his golf game, you might find him at DeLuca's in the Strip.