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.
“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.”