Memphis Millennials balance work and stand-up comedy routines

Memphian comics Charley McMullen and Jay Kendrick face off in the final round of a "You Look Like" comedy contest. Two ten-year-veterans of the Memphis comedy scene, Katrina Coleman and Joshua McLane, hosted this specific show in February. Coleman's reoccurring events often bring an excited crowd to the P & H Cafe on Saturday nights.

By Gus Carrington and Marco Riehl

The most ‘unforgiving internship ever’ 

Stephanie Grace Cross’ first experience with the city of Memphis was, after driving six hours from Hot Springs, Arkansas, losing a competition between fellow stand-up comedians.

As she stood outside The P&H Cafe, following the “You Look Like” comedy show, where comics trade insults for laughs, Cross wasn’t done explaining what her competitor looked like.

Places to see comedy in Memphis (click here to open)

“Six hours,” Cross said. “To get f***n’ roasted and lose in the first round by a 23-year-old guy who probably lives with his mom … No, he’s cool. He did a really good job.”

Both 29-year-old Cross and her opponent Jared Sturghill are Millennials. Or, as the government sees them, people who seem to not know what they are going to do with their lives. The typical worker aged 20 to 24, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, has been in their job for about 16 months. Those aged 25 to 34 have typically worked in the same gig for about three years. The Brookings Institute reports that 64 percent of Millennials would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring.

Cross describes driving six hours to lose a comedy competition more of  “a really fun hobby.”

Memphian comedians Katrina Coleman and Joshua McLane explain the rules of a “You Look Like” comedy show.

“I work full-time,” Cross said. “I work in the business office of a mental health facility and do like accounting and balancing and stuff like that — nothing funny at all.”

While Cross has only been performing stand-up sets since last April, ten-year-veterans of the growing comedy scene in Memphis, like Katrina Coleman, have mouths to feed.

“I was the open mic comic who messed around and had kids, and so had to figure out how that could be feasible,” Coleman said. “I couldn’t just go out and spend money every night on bar tabs for the privilege of 5 minutes.”

‘The talent is here’

Coleman had to figure out how to translate making people laugh into, not getting rich, but becoming sustainable. She still works an office job, but founded the Memphis Comedy Festival for that reason. The festival celebrated its sixth run in March, and the year before brought nearly 5,000 comedy fans to Midtown. According to Coleman, Memphis has always been a place for comedy, and the mission statement of the festival will always be to create a stage for it.

“The talent is already here,” Coleman said. “Not only are we funny and talented and we’re going to work very hard, but when we tell you that there is this show that we want you to come to, you come.”

While Coleman is 32 and therefore “right on the cusp” of the Millennial line, she describes herself as “an old comic” of the Bluff City. Thanks to Coleman, younger Memphian comedians have been able to grow in an environment with more opportunities than she had when she started out.

“Sometimes I get a little crotchety and they’re a little bit entitled,” Coleman said. “They don’t know what I did to get them the chances that they had. But I can’t be mad. They never made the phone calls I made when I had to call 5 or 6 different venues who said ‘can’t have comedy here.”

Now, The P&H Cafe is generally packed on a Saturday night as Coleman’s “You Look Like” shows charge attendees for a night of comedians insulting each other on stage. They are one of the few events at the bar that are still allowed to charge an entrance fee, according to Coleman.

 

‘Catching the bug’

University of Memphis biology major Cameron Walton, 23, was one of the many occupying a table at the cafe before his friend, comic Jared Sturghill, took the stage. Walton said that Sturghill is almost as funny as he is, but Walton won’t try getting on stage for a few reasons.

“I ain’t got the guts,” Walton said. “And that’s half of it.”

Jared Sturghill reads some of the insults members of the crowd wrote specifically for him during a “You Look Like” show.

Sturghill has had the guts to perform at open mics in Memphis for nearly two years. He said that stand-up isn’t something people should commit to if they aren’t 100 percent sure about pursuing it.

“It’s the most unforgiving internship ever,” Sturghill said. ‘You never know if you’re going to get the job. You just have to keep grinding until it pays off.”

Meanwhile, Sturghill grinds during the day as a member of Dillard’s support team, bringing supplies into the store. He also goes to the U of M in hopes of becoming a speech therapist. His family would definitely not be supportive of him giving up all this to pursue comedy full-time. Still, he continues to eat, breathe and live stand-up.

“It’s like a video game in that, if you keep dying in the video game, you get to keep trying to get better,” Sturghill said. “Comedy is the same thing. You can bomb one week and have a fresh start the next week. You can just continue to improve on yourself.”

Sturghill said that his first open mic attempt is on Youtube and that now, he cringes when he watches it.

“I had a lot of support for me the first time, which really helps out,” Sturghill said “It didn’t go too bad, but right after I finished I caught the bug and I was addicted. I was on it. I was on it since then.”

 

The ‘wild west of comedy’ 

Joshua McLane is a Memphian comic who caught the bug 9 years ago.

“I only started doing standup ‘cause of a dare,” McLane said. “Then, like everyone else who likes doing it, got addicted, like you do.”

McLane, 37, is another comic on the cusp of the Millennial line (at least according to The Atlantic) but he does not identify as a Millennial. In fact, McLane said he doesn’t identify as anything outside of being a musician. The man has learned how to make money through a few different, alternative means.

“That’s the deal that I learned from indie wrestling and musicianship, but that millennials have picked up on,” McLane said. “I guess that age group has picked up on it across the board. Why have one job you wanna kill yourself when you can just barely get by with a bunch of little shit?”

By night McLane works as a stand-up comedian (with an album available on iTunes.) Also by night — he plays the skins in local punk-folk band Heels.

“I make money doing stand-up,” McLane said. “I make money doing bands. I barely make any money making sandwiches, but the making sandwiches affords me to be able get what I need to get … as long as Karen, my wife, doesn’t f***n’ divorce me.”

McLane said that the “old guard” of Memphian comedians includes himself, Katrina Coleman, Richard Douglas Jones and Brandon Sams.

“Everybody else got smart and moved when they had the chance to move,” McLane said. “You either move on to bigger pastures when you’re younger, or you f*** up and stay here.”

 

 

Will Loden, 27, is newer to the Bluff City scene than McLane and the “old guard.” The treasurer of the 2017 Memphis Comedy Festival is originally from Houston, TX, but he grew up in Mississippi. Two years ago he moved to Memphis and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s amazingly experimental and you get to see some really amazing stuff,” Loden said.

In major markets like New York, Chicago, L.A. and Houston, it’s actually harder for comedians to find their voice, according to Loden.

“The best thing about Memphis is it’s the absolute wild west of comedy,” Loden said. “You can afford to live here, which is amazing. I work at a brewery and I coach and I get to talk about my dick at night. I’m living the dream.”

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