Editor’s note: Due to the production schedule for Pacific NW magazine, this story was written before the state’s “shelter in place” orders, intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, were enacted.
SEATTLE’S COMEDY UNDERGROUND club is partially full on a Monday night in February, patrons sipping Rainier tallboys and cheap mixed drinks in the dim lighting. Although the show is an amateur open mic — and despite the sheets of rain pounding against the upstairs entrance to the Pioneer Square club — the audience is larger than you might expect, and everyone is engaged.
That’s the first thing you’ll learn about the Seattle comedy scene: Although not as glamorous as it is in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles, it is well-supported, with people turning out for even obscure events.
That, and the overall quality is high. The ceiling might not be as lofty as it is in places where ambitious comics are likelier to get discovered, but buoyed by a supportive culture where up-and-comers are pushing each other, the floor is elevated.
So while there are a handful of folks who step on stage at Comedy Underground and bomb, most land at least a couple of punchlines. Birungi lands more than a few.
An immigrant from Uganda who moved here to attend Seattle University, Birungi pokes fun at his green-card status, and at how his name complicates day-to-day interactions.
“There are two types of names,” he riffs on stage. “Let’s say your name is John. You introduce yourself, and you jump right into the conversation.” Dramatic pause, before the laugh line. “That s— does not work for me.”
Birungi has been doing stand-up for about five years, having stumbled into the business via a dog retirement party — don’t ask; it’s actually not as funny of a story as it sounds — and it took him a while to find his voice. Not just his rhythm, and comedic tone, but getting comfortable making fun of himself.
“It’s taken some figuring out,” Birungi explains later. “You also have to identify the topics that resonate with you. That’s why I do a lot of life-of-an-immigrant material. The differences between my previous life and my life right now. The annoyances of trying to navigate a different country.”
He’s done a little bit of touring, hitting up festivals in different parts of the United States. He’s found that Seattle audiences are typically more receptive to these types of bits, slices of a different kind of life — and that this city tends to be more self-deprecating than most.
“Seattle people are aware of their shortcomings, and they kinda like when you point them out,” Birungi says. “Like drinking coffee at 5 p.m. Who does that? We do, and now I do, too. Dogs. People love their dogs. The entire craziness of Pike Place. The gum wall. Microbreweries. How white it is. I mean, it’s there. Gentrification. People seem to like acknowledging things like the Seattle Freeze. When you poke at those things, sometimes they hate it, but most of the time they love it.”
That particular sense of humor is the next thing to learn about the Seattle comedy scene — perhaps unsurprising, for long-term residents, but revelatory nonetheless.
THE MOST RECURRING theme, when speaking to local comics about what is unique about comedy in Seattle, is inclusion.
“The scene here is welcoming,” Vee Chattie says. “There’s definitely a lot more space for queer comics, and a lot of different voices.”
Chattie, who is transgender, moved to Seattle from Boston about five years ago, and remembers being struck right away by that initial warmth. That’s not to say everything about his new city has been exactly his speed.
“I feel like my volume was turned up to 11 when I moved here. I’m still trying to get the hang of it,” Chattie jokes. “People will be like, ‘Why are you yelling?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m talking at a normal volume.’ And I feel like roasting people is kind of a love language on the East Coast, especially in the Northeast, and here it’s not. It’s not necessarily seen as a term of endearment to rip on your friends.”
Chattie, like Birungi, also has tweaked his craft over time, refining his point of view. There is room to grow here, and to experiment, without fear — yet there can be a drawback to that, too.
“It can be trickier, because the audiences in Seattle are a bit more reserved,” Chattie says. “Like if I’m doing jokes about my personal experiences, if I don’t get it just right, the audience is gonna be like, ‘Ooh, should we laugh at that?’ They’re going to pull back, because they’re not sure if they should laugh at that, because they’re trying to be respectful.”
Reading the room is one of a comedian’s most important skills, and for Chattie, it has become especially crucial.
“I have a line that I use a lot: ‘Don’t worry. You can laugh at that; I have to,’ ” Chattie says. “That’s the whole reason I’m getting on stage in front of you. You can laugh. I wrote this joke for you to chuckle at. Please laugh with me. But that’s the thing: Everybody is worried about laughing at you. I try to play with that. It’s been interesting finding the balance. How can I talk about my personal experiences, which is very different than the audience’s, while still allowing them to feel comfortable enough to laugh with me?”
Still, a crowd that is overly sensitive is preferable to one that is needlessly hostile, and Chattie also has been heartened by how many colleagues have had similar life experiences.
He’s done shows in New Orleans, New York, Texas, Boston and Portland, “And I’ve never seen as many trans and queer comedians just being out and open and up on stage, in any other scene, than Seattle,” Chattie says. “When I see a bunch of us on stage [that] are able to relate to people that don’t share your experience, that’s really important.”
There seems to be a realization here, too, that comics, to varying degrees, are all trying to figure it out, and improve.
“It’s not like cutthroat, but it is competitive,” says Stevie Rae, a comic who moved to Seattle from Phoenix last year.
“There’s only so many spots, but everyone here is for sure supportive,” she says. “Everyone is always trying to help each other out rather than tearing each other down, and I’ve been in some comedy communities where that’s not the case.”
Comedy Underground is something like the spiritual home of Seattle comedy. It opened in 1981, and within these exposed brick walls have performed luminaries such as Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. The Underground is far from the only venue of note, however.
It’s possible to do a new show at a different venue every night of the week. Comics refer to it as “running the circuit” — beyond the Underground: Jai Thai on Capitol Hill, the recently opened Club Comedy Seattle on 15th, Laughs Comedy Club in the U District, Clock-Out Lounge on Beacon Hill.
And for Chattie, the major spots only begin to scratch the surface of what’s available, with countless house and specialty shows also scattered around the city.
“There are circuits you can do that are just queer shows and just bounce around to,” Chattie says. “It is really unique. Every single open mic you’re going to go to is different. … There’s something for everybody.”
A FEW NIGHTS after the open mic, Bo Johnson was back at the Underground running the weekly Wednesday night “Seattle’s Best Comedy” show. He was in charge of setting the order of who got to go when, and kept the flow moving, closing down the show himself with a 10-minute set.
“Have you ever seen a political attack ad that just makes you like the other guy more?” Johnson asks during an especially popular bit. “Where it starts off like, ‘Daniel Martinez … thinks that undocumented children … should receive a basic public-school education. Dangerous ideas.’ They’re kids, man; I don’t care. Let them go to school.”
Johnson is something of a rarity in the local comedy game: a bona fide local, who grew up in Lake Forest Park and went to school at the University of Washington. So while a significant chunk of his contemporaries came in from elsewhere, Johnson has received a firsthand look at how the scene has evolved.
Johnson has been involved for only five years or so since graduating from UW — although in Seattle time, that still can feel like a while. He runs down a sizable list of venues that have closed since he started doing shows, from Parlor Live to Scratch Deli to the Dexter & Hayes Public House. The spots that have popped up to replace them haven’t exactly been like for like, but Johnson does say the scene is as robust as ever. He’s gotten involved with Don’t Tell Comedy, which runs secret shows in interesting locations that have been hugely popular.
Seattle’s place in the overall comedy hierarchy, though, hasn’t changed a whole lot. It exists in a kind of second tier: below LA and New York and Chicago, but still more vibrant than most.
One issue is a lack of high-profile stage time. This is a good place when you’re breaking in, with that surplus of open mics, and various house and brewery shows. Once a comic gets to a certain level, though, it gets harder. Most of the money is in headlining or featuring in a show, and there are only so many genuine clubs in the area.
With this, as with much else, the Seattle comedy scene reflects the city itself: It certainly has grown in stature, but it is still mid-size in the grand scheme of things.
“You have a couple of people who are headliners who have been here for a long time,” Johnson says. “And then beyond that, a lot of that is people who are a lot younger and trying to get good. … There’s only so much you can do from Seattle. There’s cool stuff, but you do eventually have to leave. You can use Seattle as a home base, but it’s a different path. Most of the people here are trying to get funnier before they leave, or before they try to tour.”
The late Mitch Hedberg first broke through here before become a star nationally. Joel McHale started out doing improv at Pike Place Market Theater before moving to Los Angeles. Wilfred Padua, who departed the Seattle scene for Brooklyn a year and a half ago, recently won the prestigious Boston Comedy Festival.
A perk for those who stick around, at least for a while, is that the Northwest as a whole contains plenty of opportunities for work if you’re willing to leave the city. And not just in obvious places like Tacoma, Portland and Vancouver. Johnson has done a bunch of casino and bar shows in Southern Oregon and Central Washington, and calls Heckler’s in Victoria, B.C., one of his favorite venues in the region.
Asked about his own goals and ambitions after the Best of Seattle show, Johnson pauses for a long beat.
He says he’d like to make enough money to do comedy full-time — he and every other comic quoted have day jobs in addition to their nighttime craft. His “cheesy answer,” in his own words, is to one day be what comics were for him growing up: people who bonded together his high school and college buddies.
“It would be cool to be even a small version of that,” Johnson says.
As to how Seattle fits into that … well, he’ll see.
“You do have to be realistic about what the city is,” Johnson says. “There are some opportunities that you have to go out and get yourself, because there really isn’t any industry here — which can be a good thing, too. Because you can kind of do your own thing, and work on getting funnier, which is ultimately the only thing that matters. I would like to be able to make a living doing it, because it’s a bummer to not be able to make a living. But I also just want to get good at something I love.”