Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Crown Station Serves as an Incubator for Charlotte’s Underground Comics
One big joke

By Ryan Pitkin

December 19, 2018

On a recent Wednesday at around 10:30 p.m., Megan Cole came off stage after a seven-minute stand-up comedy set in which laughs were coming few and far between from the audience. But at this open mic, that’s not always a problem.

For veterans of the Wednesday open mic night at Crown Station, laughs are great, but they’re not everything.

Megan Cole on stage (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

“What’s great about this place is you don’t know if you did well by the laughs in the room, because most of us are comedians,” Cole said just a few minutes after leaving the stage. “But then you come off stage and you get this incredible rousing support. I just had three people come up to me at the bar to tell me they loved it. But when you’re up there and it’s mostly comedians in the crowd, it feels a little lonely.”

For more than 10 years now, comedians have been hitting the Crown Station open mic to work out material and keep up with peers on the local scene. The venue has changed — from SK Net Café in Elizabeth, to Crown Station when they took that space over, to the new Crown Station location in north NoDa — but the mission has remained the same: make somebody laugh.

There are about 50 stand-up comics who rotate in and out of the Crown Station open mic on any given Wednesday. For Brian O’Neil, who’s been a regular on stage since March, the weekly event has become an incubator for a scene that’s quietly growing in momentum.

O’Neil has watched as other arts scenes in Charlotte have gotten attention — from hip-hop to the visual arts — and he’s convinced that the underground comedy scene is up next.

Brian O’Neil (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

“You can feel the energy, and it matches with Charlotte in general,” O’Neill said before a set at a recent Crown Station open mic. “It’s happening all over, and that’s why we’re trying not to get too ahead of ourselves, but we’ll probably be like the next big thing — our comedy. Like Atlanta is, like Chicago, New York, people are going to start looking to come here. Just like the hip-hop and all the music and stuff.”

That sounds like a lofty goal, so I feel the need to jump in here and justify what he said. When O’Neil first reached out to me to ask that I come check out the Wednesday open mic, I agreed reluctantly. I try to support local comedy when I can — Blayr Nias, Carlos Valencia, Tania Kelly and the likes are amazing — but the idea of sitting in a bar while Charlotte’s up-and-coming comics tested out new jokes sounded like a brutal way to spend a Wednesday evening.

Looking back, that smug attitude almost held me back from finding what has since become one of my favorite weekly events in Charlotte. The Wednesday open mic at Crown Station is far from amateur hour. These folks are fucking funny.

According to Mimi Benfield, who’s been hosting the show since it resumed in the new Crown Station on North Davidson Street in November 2017, the number of comedians who show up regularly to the open mic has increased in recent years. More importantly, however, is the sense of community that’s grown seemingly out of nowhere.

Benfield said she’s watched the local scene grow into a community that didn’t exist just five years ago.

Mimi Benfield takes a quick poll. (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

“I will say the scene is new — like, the family vibe to it [is new],” Benfield said. “I started six years ago and it was definitely not as friendly; most of the comics would go out and smoke until it was their turn. In the last two to three years, we’ve got a nice little family forming.”

That new sense of community is something Kaleigh Cutright noticed immediately when she returned to the scene in early December after taking a one-year hiatus from stand-up comedy.

“It seems like there is an overwhelmingly more supportive atmosphere than there was in the past,” Cutright said after her set on a recent Wednesday. “Within the past two years, something happened where it’s just more supportive. It was very cliquish, and when I came back it doesn’t seem that way at all, which is really refreshing. I think it’s one of the reasons that I wanted to come back.”

Cutright said she took a break from stand-up after having doubts about her skills. But on Nov. 17, her first night back at the Crown Station open mic, she faced some of her deepest insecurities head-on.

She worked the crowd, shaking a few hands from the stage and turning it into an improvised bit. When I complimented her on how well it played, she admitted that crowd work has never been a part of her repertoire, but it’s something she’s working on. She’s been trying to bring her extrovert social self into the introverted stage persona she’s so often fed into.

Kaleigh Cutright works the crowd. (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

“For a long time crowd work was something that was scary because I felt uncomfortable and I just didn’t do it,” she said. “But what I’m figuring out now is that if I were not on the microphone, I would be talking to everybody. That’s the only mental block I have now is the microphone so I don’t want that to stand in my way. There’s no reason to be scared.”

In the end, however, there’s every reason to be scared. A fear of public speaking is considered one of the most prevalent phobias in America. Multiple studies have put the percentage of Americans who struggle with speech anxiety at about 75.

So if three out of four people are terrified of even speaking to a crowd of people, how many want to get up there and try to make them laugh?

According to Matt Corrao, a regular performer at Crown Station, it takes “a special kind of mental illness” to put yourself out there as a funny person and risk the potential that nobody is going to laugh.

About five years ago, Corrao started doing stand-up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he lived at the time. The lack of a comedy community there led him to drop out of the scene, but when he moved to Charlotte about a year ago, he decided to pick it back up. It had been around four years since he got on stage, and the fear came back.

“The first time I got back on stage after that long time, my legs were rubber and I couldn’t remember anything I wrote down,” Corrao recalled. “I started making things up to stay on stage.”

Corrao said “the jitters” come back every once in a while, but he’s gotten back into the swing of things. For many comedians, it’s not the fear of the crowd that makes their stomachs turn, it’s the fear of failure. Dre Copeland, another regular at Crown Station, said he’s never been scared to step on a stage, but he does fear the idea that he can’t get his point across to the audience in the way that he wants.

Before a recent set at Crown Station, he explained why he defines bombing — the word most comedians give to not getting any laughs — differently than some of his peers.

“The whole purpose of what we do is to communicate,” Copeland said. “We’re all imagining, or we saw something that’s like, ‘Man, that’s crazy,’ and I have to describe to you what I saw. So if I bomb, that means I saw some wild stuff but I couldn’t get you to understand what I saw. That’s a bomb to me. Bombing to me doesn’t mean being booed, it means that I didn’t reach you.”

Dre Copeland on stage at Nonsensual Comedy. (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

Another fear of Copeland’s is an issue that I reference near the top of this story: the fact that Crown Station’s crowd is often filled with fellow comedians.

The first time I attended a Crown Station open mic in November, I was amazed that when I walked up to the bar and looked to my left, it seemed like every single person down the bar had a notebook in front of them. Most of them were writing in their respective notebook.

Copeland pointed out that there are pros and cons to speaking to a room full of comics. He said that he has a joke about bombing that kills at Crown Station, but doesn’t get much reaction anywhere else.

“The danger in my own opinion is if you try to make comedians laugh you can accidentally become a comic’s comic,” Copeland said. “I’ve had jokes that were funny in the comics’ room, but when I told a crowd of people, they don’t know. It’s a good feeling to make these cats laugh at my jokes because they’re people too, but they’re looking at it more along the lines of nuance.”

Though Cole was right about the difficulty of getting laughs in a room full of comedians, there’s plenty of laughter to go around. On an average Wednesday night, the audience is made up of about 50 percent comedians, while the other half is just looking for a good laugh.

For those folks working out their material on stage, however, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind; an open mic is practice.

Cole’s set on that late November night was about millennials, and many of the folks in the crowd had heard the material before, as she had been working it out for weeks. On Dec. 12, however, she came back with a new set of material and got a better reaction.

But Cole has been around long enough to not be bothered by any crowd reaction. Like almost all the comedians I spoke to for this story, she’s her own worst critic anyway.

“Every Wednesday that I get up there I’m like, ‘This is terrifying, why the fuck do you do this? This is a terrible idea. You’re not funny,’” Cole told me after a set in November. “I tell myself three things before I go on: Hair, up or down? Bra, on or off? And you’re not funny, don’t fucking do this. Those are the three things that go through my head before a set.”

The answers fluctuate for the former two questions, but as far as the latter goes, she and everyone who shows up each Wednesday at Crown Station can relate: she’s going to fucking do this.

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