A Guy Walks Into a (Comedy?) Bar
Ryan Kriger and Carmen Lagala
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The local comedy scene is legit.
Even as little as two years ago, to call local comedy a “scene” would have been a charitable designation at best. Aside from veterans such as Josie Leavitt and Martha Tormey, it was characterized by a small crew of comics telling mostly mediocre jokes to family and friends at occasional showcases in small venues around the state. In short, not many polished comedians were practicing the craft in Vermont. And demand for them was even less. But then — pardon the pun — a funny thing happened.
Seemingly overnight, local comedians began crawling out of the woodwork. And they started getting funny. Like, really funny. Open mics devoted to standup began appearing regularly at clubs all over Vermont. Comedy showcases, once confined to “infrequent special event” status, started happening several times per month. And then there was the watershed moment: this year’s Higher Ground Comedy Battle in January, which featured by far the most talented group of performers the contest had seen in its seven-year run. Then, this spring, the third annual Green Mountain Comedy Festival further verified scene status with a three-day, statewide laugh riot featuring some 30-plus local comedians. It was official. Local comedy had arrived. And now, it has a home.
Recently, the unlikely epicenter for local comedy has been Patra Café on Center Street in Burlington. The tiny Vietnamese coffee- and teahouse has hosted the state’s most popular comedy open mic for a little over a year — fyi, the last Thursday of every month. Well, the café has been purchased by local comedian Ryan Kriger and has reopened as Levity — Vermont’s first, and so far only, comedy club.
Kriger is a recent transplant from New York City, where he was a stand-up performer. Upon arriving in Vermont in January, he began to feel out the local comedy situation and soon became a regular at Patra’s open mic. In a recent phone conversation, Kriger says he had toyed with the idea of eventually opening a comedy club in Vermont, but had thought it was a few years away. Then, a few months ago, he discovered Patra was on the market.
“I think the first thing everyone thought when we found out Patra was for sale was, Well, that’s the end of the open mic,” Kriger says. But the impending sale actually spurred him into action. “I had always wanted to run a coffee shop, and had always wanted to open a comedy club,” he recounts. “So I said, Let’s make it happen.”
However, to make it happen, Kriger had to address an inconvenient truth: He has a day job. Kriger is an assistant attorney general in Montpelier. If he was going to own a café, he needed someone else to manage it. And so he tabbed local comedian and HG Comedy Battle finalist Carmen Lagala, who will run the club’s day-to-day operations and is also a minority owner.
While the opening of a club specifically devoted to standup is undoubtedly exciting news for local comedy fans, it does raise a practical concern. Even amid the current funny boom, can Burlington actually support such a venue?
“That is the big question,” concedes Kriger. “One side of me says, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The other side of me says, ‘Well, that was a Kevin Costner movie.’”
Fantastical Iowa cornfields aside, Kriger says he plans to start small — which is good, as the club only has an occupancy of about 40. For now, Levity will feature a weekly comedy showcase on Fridays, and will continue the monthly open mic. It will operate as a coffee shop during the day, though Kriger also has a liquor license.
“If we tried to operate like a New York club and open only when we have comedy, I don’t think that would work,” he says.
As the club gets established, Kriger plans to add a Saturday comedy showcase, and perhaps even offer multiple shows per night. Other plans include bringing in improv comedy groups and, eventually, adopting the Higher Ground model of booking national touring acts en route between Boston or New York and Montréal.
“We’re not just doing a standard New York comedy club,” Kriger concludes. “I want comedy to pervade the entire experience, for people to come together and have a good time.”
Levity opens its doors with a debut comedy showcase on Friday, October 14. The show, a flood relief benefit for Revitalizing Waterbury, will feature Kriger, Lagala, Kit Rivers, Kyle Gagnon, Oliver Barkley, Pat Lynch and Colin Ryan.
TWIB (This Week in Benefits)
Kind of a light week on the Irene benny front. But a couple of notable feel-good happenings deserve your attention. In no particular order…
Following the charitable lead of their big sibling band Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, local rock outfit Chamberlin have released a benefit EP, Cabin Covers. The EP finds the band covering a few tunes that their fans voted on, including an ambitious cover of the Kanye West/Bon Iver collaboration “Lost in the World” — a Kanye track that samples Bon Iver’s “Woods” from the Blood Bank EP and pretty much shut down the Internet when it leaked last year. Other cuts include “Little Secrets” by Passion Pit, “Go Outside” by Cults, “Giving Up the Gun” by Vampire Weekend and “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People. The physical EP is available at shows or can be ordered online at chamberlin.com. It also comes with a pound of coffee from the Vermont Coffee Company.
In other news, John Lennon tribute band the Nu-Utopians will celebrate the Eggman’s birthday this Sunday, October 9, at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction. All proceeds from the show benefit Opera North, which lost $40,000 worth of props, costumes and equipment, and WRJ homeless shelter and advocacy organization, Upper Valley Haven.
Happy trails, Adam King! The veteran local keyboardist is setting his sights on the left coast and moving to Portland, Ore. — aka the other Portland — next month. However, before he goes, he’s embarking on a farewell tour, Burlington style, beginning this Tuesday, October 11, at Nectar’s. In addition to performing his usual solo act, King will be joined by the ghosts of his Queen City musical past, including Seth Yacovone, some Turkey Bouillon Mafia folks, his old Jesus Vanacho pals and, of course, members of the Dead Sessions. Speaking of the Dead tribute act, King says a monster Dead Sessions show is in the works for November 3, his “official” last B-town gig. Stay tuned.
On the flip side of the coin, welcome back, Vultures of Cult! The Justin Gonyea-led (ex-Romans) band has been awfully quiet since the release of their epic “stoner rock opera” Cold Hum, last year. But they’re back this Wednesday, October 12, at the Monkey House, opening for Arbouretum and Eternal Tapestry.
Congrats to Harmonizer, the collaboration between local experimental musicians Toby Aronson and Greg Davis. The duo just released an LP on indie imprint Mexican Summer, World Complete, that has been getting some positive online buzz from folks such as Altered Zones and the Fader.
Speaking of Davis, he’s hosting a typically intriguing noise show at the BCA Center on Saturday, October 8, with Mandelbrot & Skyy and Rene Hell.
Michael Chorney has a new band because, well, that’s just what Michael Chorney does. He starts new bands. Anyway, it’s called Dollar General and features Chorney’s Hadestown bandmates, bassist Rob Morse and drummer Geza Carr, as well as pedal steel ace Asa Brosius. Chorney says they’re playing material written over the last couple of months. Did I mention they have a pedal steel player? Color me intrigued. Dollar General debut at the Black Door in Montpelier this Saturday, October 8.
Band Name of the Week: Thundercocks. Yeah … I don’t know anything about this band because I was honestly afraid to Google them on my work computer. But they’ll be at Hostel Tevere in Warren this Friday, October 7, with Spit Jack and White Zinfandel. You’ve been warned.
Last but not least, local songwriter Tommy Alexander celebrates his debut record, Maybe One Day, with a release party at Nectar’s this Thursday, October 6, with 2nd Agenda and spank. Unfortunately, we didn’t get our hands on the record in time for print. But look for a review in the coming weeks.
Once again, this week’s totally self-indulgent column segment, in which I share a random sampling of what was on my iPod, turntable, CD player, 8-track player, etc., this week.
The Gourds, Old Mad Joy
Blind Pilot, We Are the Tide
Jens Lekman, An Argument With Myself
A.A. Bondy, Believers
Jeff Mangum, Live at Jittery Joe’s