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.”
"How I started doing stand-up"
Comedians of the 2017 Memphis Comedy Festival explain how they first decided to take the leap to perform stand-up comedy.
Richard Douglas Jones, 38, co-creator of the Memphis Comedy Festival
“I don’t know. It’s just something I always wanted to try and after a bunch of bad stuff happened I was in a place where I got nothing else to do so I decided to go ahead and jump in. I look at it as a job, but it treats me like a hobby. That’s the best way to describe it.”
Tawanda Gona, 28, from Boston
“I’ve wanted to do it since I was 3 years old and I just liked being the center of attention. If somebody’s in a really bad mood or a really bad place, if I can get them somewhere better, whatever I have to do, I’ll do it."
Mark Brimble, 26, biomedical researcher at St.Jude
"I got into comedy because I was no good at public speaking - no good at giving talks. I decided to tackle that, solve that and throw myself into the worst environment possible, which is stand-up comedy."
Sammy Anzar, 28, teacher at Kingsbury High School
“I think always being the loudest storyteller amongst my friends - we always competed to like who could tell the story of last night what happened the funniest. I just think like giving people joy is one of the best things to do. I like making people laugh. I was a class clown too growing up.”
Wes Corwin, 24, writes code for American Airlines
“I got out of a really bad relationship and I kinda needed a bunch of people to validate my opinions, because it hadn't been happening for a while. The first few months it was a lot of bitterness and anger and then I was like ‘Oh wait, I want to be good at this and that’s when it turned into trying. I would overstep the bounds between the audience and they would be like ‘Whoa we just want funny things,’ and I’d be like ‘That’s real. I’m sorry.’"
Mina Daniels, lives in L.A., from New York
“Well I was never going to be a professional cellist, but I was actually an investment banker. I used to intern at investment banking firms in the summer, so my parents reaction - they didn’t take it so well in the beginning. But when I started doing stand-up they were super excited, because they are huge stand-up fans. I was raised watching everybody’s stand-up. I knew all of Eddie Murphy’s stuff, but I shouldn’t have. I was super young."
"The hard thing is that there are not a lot of black women comics who do music. I don’t even know one. I know guys who have instruments and who incorporate instruments but I don’t know any black women. So on the female-side, on the diverse-side, they’re probably out there somewhere, but even the bigger I get and the more I do I still don’t find them.”
Nathan Hiller, 39, President of the Memphis Comedy Festival
“It’s been ....8 years. It’s always a blur to when it started.
I’ve been doing a comedy about a year shy of my divorce. In the sense that it was the saddest moment of my life and I started doing comedy about a year in a half later because I needed to do things that weren’t so sad and it was a way to get back into the real world and not just be sad about things.”
“I think as evidence by the P & H comedy open mic, we have to fight really hard to make sure that audiences appreciate us and every comedian I believe that comes out of Memphis has fought hard to get those laughs. I’m not saying that other cities don’t have hard scenes, but I think there’s a grit and a determination and tenacity that comes from being a Memphis comic and it’s that whole grit n’ grind type thing that the grizzlies embraced that I think that comedy in Memphis is definitely a example of.”
C. Vanderploeg, 28, from Denver, Colorado
“Alcohol. I mean a lot of people told me I should do comedy to the point where I believed it. Then I went college and got a degree and once I did that I was like ‘I’m gonna try it, why not?’ And I’m hooked. … I’m not gonna lie though, the first two months I did comedy I was probably wasted the entire time. ”
Charlie Vergos, 27, from Memphis
“I rehearsed all day. I always had funny stuff I had written in high school in a notebook and so I took everything from that. I picked what I thought were the 50 funniest things and god bless them, I read all 50 to two of my best friends and they listened to it all. I picked the 10 funniest from that. So most of what I wrote wasn’t that great, but it was like the best of the best of some not great stuff so it was o.k.”
Jared Sturghill, 23, Memphian who works at Dillard's
“When I told my Mom that I was gonna do stand-up for sure, she was like ‘hmmm.’ I told her I was going to be a speech therapist for the longest time and then I got it into me that I was going to do stand-up. I kind of weighed the pros and cons I was like ‘I think I have what it takes to try to go the next mile in stand up.”
Nathan Mosher, 21, from L.A.
“I was super nervous. It was late in an open-mic cause I was like 30th. I wrote jokes based on all the other comedians sets and I think when I did my set like half of it was me trying to say stuff about theirs. I bombed and I basically blacked out on-stage. I don’t remember but it was fine but I was so nervous.”
Diego Attanasio, 30, from Detroit
“I just couldn’t do anything else. A lot of comedians are like ‘I’m not good at anything else.' I didn’t enjoy doing anything else so and then I got like crazy depressed and then I wasn’t doing anything and I just started doing comedy. I was like ‘This isn’t a drag and I enjoy it sometimes’ so it just grew out of nothing to stand up. I didn’t quit my job or stop working. I just wasn’t doing anything and then I only started doing comedy.”
Aaron Naylor, 26, from Kansas City, Missouri. works at Delta Airlines
“I was living in Tuscon, Arizona and I was like ‘You got to do something to get away from your shitty girlfriend.’ She wasn’t 21 yet and I was, so I could get into the clubs and I was like ‘You're gonna do comedy.’ I always wanted to do it a little bit, but this was the straw that broke the camel's back. I ate shit for a long time, but then she broke up with me so it worked. I definitely passively-aggressively got into comedy.”
Roxxy Haze, from Houston, TX
“I started doing Youtube and I really liked it and my dad said I should try stand-up. And I did. And it’s just been so much fun. I’ve got to meet so much cool people. Just havin’ fun. It’s really cool. I just like it. I’ve been doing comedy about three and a half years now. Almost four years. I don’t know if I can do anything else. I’ve tried damn near every-f****n-thing else and I don’t think I can.”
Nour Hadidi, 28, from Jordan
“I’ve loved comedy movies since I was a kid, like Steve Martin, Robin Williams and sitcoms. When I got to college I started doing sketch and after graduation the only way for me to do comedy was to do stand-up by myself.”
Jason Earl Folks, 33, from Chicago
“My parents have always known I was a performer. Even my dad, who is a struggling blue collar guy, he always knew that that was what I wanted to do and he was always about it. Granted, when I go home my Mom is like ‘did you have good shows? Were they good? Good for you’ and My dad is like ‘Did you have any shows? Did they PAY?’ It’s like yeah y’know pop I get twenty bucks and burger sometimes. It’s a good time. But yeah definitely supportive. My family is all performers, singers, even though they are blue collar folks, they are performers.”
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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