Funny business 

Of all the art forms you could try to master, stand-up comedy is particularly challenging. It's the only medium in which the only way to practice is in front of a live audience. It's also the only medium in which the audience may be naturally inclined, and even socially emboldened, to dislike your performance and be vocal about it.

And it's impossible for a comedian to rely on the strength of old material or greatest hits; no one wants to hear covers of another comic's bits. It's all about churning out something fresh, and there's nothing to hide behind but a mic stand.

Those challenges haven't stopped locals from telling jokes on stage. There are a crop of newcomers interested in learning the craft, as well as seasoned local comics sharpening their skills. Some of these stand-ups also produce their own shows to showcase the talent of other comedians.

Rochester's mainstream stand-up club, Comedy at The Carlson – located at 50 Carlson Road, with a main room of 350 seats – hosts mostly out-of-town comedians, as do large performing venues like the Auditorium Theatre and Kodak Center. The local comedy landscape also includes a robust DIY scene, numerous open mics, and curated showcases at various bars, music clubs, and coffee shops.

At these alternative venues, Rochester comedians can either develop their routines or present their complete stand-up sets. Whether it's an open mic at Firehouse Saloon, with 20 or 30 people in a gathering of mostly fellow comedians, or a produced comedy show at Photo City Improv with a slightly larger audience, the vibe tends to be cozy and supportive.

A handful of venues consistently feature stand-up in the city. Open mic sets tend to be works-in-progress, with a sometimes raw delivery and unpredictable subject matter. Curated stand-up showcases are decidedly more polished and consistent in quality. Local comedian and presenter Woody Battaglia estimates that about 100 individual comedians perform at least once a month, and between 50 and 70 comedians perform more than once a month.

Stand-up comedy in the Rochester area is by no means a new phenomenon, but what is different these days is the steady stream of open mics, hosted on a nearly daily basis, and the emergence of amateur and semi-professional comedians honing their material there.

Among the most prominent of the open mics are the three weekly series produced by Battaglia, named Best Local Comedian in CITY's 2018 readers' poll. Battaglia is a ubiquitous figure in the Rochester stand-up scene, co-producing the "Comedy Cocoon" open mic each Sunday at the Bug Jar, with host Paul Barsamian; hosting the open mic "Backdraft II: Laughdraft" at the Firehouse Saloon on Tuesdays; presenting an additional mic at Butapub on Wednesdays; and putting on curated comedy shows as part of the Brunchtown Comedy Collective alongside fellow comics Jane Ives and Ilhan Ali. Battaglia also hosts the weekly comedy-variety show "Almost Tuesday" on WAYO 104. 3 FM.

Woody Battaglia and Ilhan Ali - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Woody Battaglia and Ilhan Ali

Battaglia started doing stand-up in spring 2012, at a workplace talent show. He wasted no time after that, performing 100 sets in his first year and learning the importance of recording his performances and rewriting jokes. In addition to performing stand-up professionally, he also has several part-time jobs: working as a driver for Foodlink; playing the role of patient for students' medical training at University of Rochester Medical Center; and editing the Maximum Fun podcast "Minority Korner."

Although he's still an active stand-up comedian, Battaglia has additional priorities: teaching stand-up to beginners and providing a safe, inclusive environment for previously underrepresented groups like women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community to perform and watch comedy.

"My goal is that as many people from as many different kinds of backgrounds come and do stand-up comedy in Rochester and become a part of the comedy scene," Battaglia says. He teaches classes, he says, to give people from marginalized groups a place to "dip their toe in before they have to be in the lion's den with a bunch of white dudes."

Kara Maillie – who is co-producer of "Almost Tuesday" and frequently shares comedy bills with Battaglia – first emerged as a prominent local performer not in stand-up, but in the comedic music group Hardwood with Hannah Weidner.

"When I first got started," Maillie says, "one of the first pieces of advice that I got from another comedian was to not feel pressured to come up with a completely new set every time you go up. And I think that repeating jokes, and kind of bombing and trying new things and just seeing what works is part of what makes your jokes better and makes you more comfortable on stage."

While Maillie still writes and performs songs, in stand-up comedy she found an outlet that gives her even greater creative autonomy. "I'm kind of a control freak," she says, "and I like to have complete agency over everything that I do, so stand-up allows for that. And it's like a nonstop thrill ride, like when you do your set and things go really well and people really like it, there's no better feeling."

During the day, Maillie works at the aerial imaging company EagleView. An integral part of her life, comedy also functions as an important expressive outlet. "I've definitely used it in place of therapy," she says. "I think most comedians have." Addressing "something that's upsetting you in a way that makes other people laugh," she says, "kind of lessens the pain a little bit."

Yolanda Smilez and Juicy LaCarla Carter - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Yolanda Smilez and Juicy LaCarla Carter

Yolanda Smilez, an accounts receivable specialist at Pathstone, has been a comedian for eight years and is at the forefront of Rochester's black comedy scene. Similar to Kara Maillie, Smilez says comedy became therapy for her. "I found it to be more of a stress reliever," she says. "Things that I'm going through, I utilize it on the stage, and it helps me get through life. I love it. It keeps me breathing."

She cohosts the 585 Viral open mic every Monday at Photo City Improv with LaCarla Carter. Smilez also puts together "Cups of Laughs" the first Friday of each month and "Jokes and Jazz" on the last Thursday of the month, previously at Brue Coffee and now at 1872 Cafe. Her shows often feature poets, musicians, and other entertainers alongside comedians.

Comedian Malcolm Whitfield initially went to college to study photography. The co-producer of WAYO's show "Almost Tuesday," Whitfield also works as a barista at Boulder Coffee. And he performs comedy throughout the upstate area, including in small towns and in Buffalo.

Malcom Whitfield, Woody Battaglia and Kara Maillie - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Malcom Whitfield, Woody Battaglia and Kara Maillie

Although Whitfield is one of a handful of local comics who gig periodically at Comedy at the Carlson, his sets have found particular resonance in Rochester's independent, DIY comedy scene, including Battaglia's open mic circuit. "We've turned it into less of a boy's club, less of a straight, white man's club," he says.

There are clear divisions between the DIY sector and the Rochester stand-up establishment. In recent years, Comedy at the Carlson has been the torchbearer for mainstream stand-up comedy in the city, with regular weekend shows featuring national and touring comedians. These shows are booked predominantly by Mark Ippolito, Carlson co-founder and former owner of the Comedy Club in Webster. The Carlson doesn't regularly host open mics.

Some comedians in the independent scene say there has been a lack of interest generally in local talent and a prohibitive attitude toward indie performers. With limited opportunities, some stand-ups have resorted to producing their own independently curated shows. Historically, Smilez says, local comedians have suffered from a lack of venues.

Long-time Rochester comedian Vinnie Paulino also says he's concerned that comedians don't have enough opportunity to perform in front of comedy audiences in comedy venues. And an overabundance of open mics can prevent a genuine fan base from developing, he says.

Vinnie Paulino and Todd Gursslin - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Vinnie Paulino and Todd Gursslin

"The only way to get better at stand-up is to perform in front of an audience that wants to see comedy," he says. "The easiest way to get terrible at stand-up is to perform to the same group of your fellow performers, week in and week out."

Adds Yolanda Smilez: "A lot of people that's in that scene, they're so focused on the open mic that they forget that you're a business. Are you doing this for a hobby, or are you actually trying to become a professional comedian? Because if you're trying to become a professional comedian, you need to be focusing more on the brand of who you are as a comic."

Paulino, who is host of "Comedy at The CarlsonCast," as well as a promoter, graphic designer, and executive producer at Comedy at the Carlson, has organized such locally focused events as "The Funniest Person in Rochester Contest," "The Rochester Roast Battles," and "Showmageddon '18." He says he worries about stagnation in the open mic circuit.

"I want to change this, he says. "I want to see real audiences come out and enjoy these shows, and help folks get better so they can get real opportunity in this business." In an effort to address what he sees as a lack of opportunity, Paulino is instituting "New Comic Night" at The Carlson, which will begin on Saturday, November 24, and will likely be a recurring event every two months.

A distinction of many of the DIY open mics and showcases in Rochester is the emphasis on promoting a welcoming environment for all comedians and audience members, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. While much of local comics' material draws from everyday, personal experience, some jokes can alienate people who may already be discouraged by a scene that is predominantly white and male, historically.

Ilhan Ali is one of many local comedians who have benefited from the more inclusive, independent scene and the positive environment it provides. A sexual assault survivor, Ali began performing stand-up as a means of self-expression and as a way to address her traumatic experience in a poignant yet entertaining way.

"I started doing comedy," she says, "'cause I was like, well, if that guy can go up there and talk about his penis for 10 minutes, then I surely can talk about my day."

Ali now hosts an open mic at The Pillar, 758 South Avenue, every Thursday and co-presents shows in the Brunchtown Comedy Collective. Ali says hateful, bigoted speech – even under the guise of free speech – has no place in stand-up comedy.

"There's people who'll be like, 'Well, that's just my comedy. My comedy's not for everybody,'" she says. "And it's like, if your comedy is divisive, if your comedy is sexist, if your comedy is homophobic, if your comedy is racist, it's not for any of us."

While abusive speech is generally considered unacceptable, Rochester comedians have different attitudes about potentially offensive jokes. Whitfield notes the importance of not alienating anyone but also acknowledges that there is danger in the opposite extreme, in which someone can arbitrarily decide what is and isn't funny.

"There's an air of super-progressiveness that is almost just as hostile and unwelcoming, because it's putting rules on comedy," he says.

Fellow stand-up Todd Gursslin works as a program coordinator for the Urban League of Rochester and is co-host of "Hate This Podcast." Monitoring the offensiveness of jokes at open mics is counterproductive, he says. He's sympathetic to those who use comedy as a platform for encouraging social justice, but he insists there's a balance between being "woke" and allowing for free speech.

"Anything can be joked about," he says. "There's a way to still kind of be edgy and do it in a way that's not offensive."

Giving comedians a wider berth when testing out new jokes at an open mic will result in better comedy that's effective and more inclusive of everyone, he says. "I will support you, because you're a comic and you're trying to speak your mind," he says. "You're doing it, and I would hope that other comics would be afforded the same thing that don't have the same beliefs as you."

When it comes to making potentially controversial jokes, Yolanda Smilez says, any topic is fair game, but it all depends on the approach. "It's also about who you're presenting that joke to, to make them feel like, 'Ok, I can deal with that,'" Smilez says. "I did a rape joke, because I was on the road and almost got raped by someone who booked me." While not funny at the time, she later used it in a joke as a way to bring levity to a serious issue.

Paulino says he's concerned about political correctness in comedy. "I have watched a lot of new performers over the years, and I have personally witnessed the emphasis of their sets evolve from punch lines to platitudes," he says. "It does worry me, because in my experience making a point is important, but being funny is what the audience came for."

Rochester's stand-up comedy landscape has become more diverse, with more women and more people of color on stage telling jokes than before. There's also more opportunity to see local comedians perform, and in a wide variety of venues. LaCarla Carter, known to comedy fans as Juicy LaCarla, says Rochester comedy is an expanding scene, in which its varied comics and equally varied perspectives are important.

"Even as we are somewhat divided, we still have the opportunity to mix and mingle and grow," Carter says.

To that end, a group comedy show has been set for Friday, December 7, 8:30 p.m. at 1872 Cafe, located at 431 West Main Street. The bill will include Ilhan Ali, Juicy LaCarla, Woody Battaglia, Todd Gursslin, Kara Maillie, Yolanda Smilez, and Malcolm Whitfield. Admission will be $10 at the door, with a portion of the proceeds going to Roc Award Cares.

One thing that won't change about stand-up is the spectacle of it. "Stand-up is one of the most intimate and masochistic types of performing art there is," Paulino says. "I'm not aware of any other art form that encourages you to bare your soul to a group of strangers in hopes they will openly and fervently laugh at you." And therein lies the fun.



RECURRING OPEN MICS

Comedy Cocoon
Bug Jar
219 Monroe Avenue
Every Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Free
Hosted by Paul Barsamian
Sign-up every Monday, 6:30 p.m. at facebook.com/groups/comedycocoon

585 Viral presents Open Mic Mondays
Photo City Improv,
543 Atlantic Avenue
Every Monday, 8 p.m.
$5 cover
Co-hosted by Yolanda Smilez, Juicy LaCarla
585Viral on Facebook

Backdraft II: Laughdraft
Firehouse Saloon
814 South Clinton Avenue
Every Tuesday,
7:30 p.m. sign-up, 8 p.m. start
Free
*No show on December 2
Hosted by Woody Battaglia
facebook.com/groups/laughdraft

Buta Bucket!
Butapub, 315 Gregory Street
Every Wednesday,
8:30 p.m. sign-up, 9 p.m. start
Free
Hosted by Woody Battaglia
facebook.com/groups/butabrawl

Ilhan Ali’s Open Mic
The Pillar, 758 South Ave
Every Thursday,
8 p.m. sign-up, 8:30 p.m. start
facebook.com/Brunchtown
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