Breaking Into Rochester's Comedy Scene is No Laughing Matter
Recently, stand-up comedian Marianne Sierkwas at Helium Comedy Club in Buffalo. She’s working on making a five minute tape to send to Conan O’Brien’s late-night show on TBS. She’s not quite sure if she got the perfect video, but she likes that Buffalo club and its crowd.
After the gig, Sierk didn’t get back to her home in Rochester until about midnight. Years ago that wouldn’t have been much of a problem. It would have been normal, actually. Right after college Sierk moved to New York City where she spent four years doing stand-up comedy. After that she spent seven years in Los Angeles doing the same.
But now, following that late night in Buffalo, she is up at 4 a.m. for her day job, co-host of the Brother Wease show on 95.1 FM, a Rochester radio morning show. She’s on air from 6 a.m. until noon.
That stable job and consistent hours, though arduous on days like these, have come from the trying times working bigger markets like New York and Los Angeles.
Now, in Rochester, Sierk sees a different type of scene than the ones she came up in. “In the Rochester scene it’s less of a young kid's game and it’s more of an ‘I’ve always wanted to try this’ kind of thing,” Sierk said.
Going between local clubs she finds many people in their second careers performing sets. Stand-up, for many comedians that Sierk sees in the area, then becomes a fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“There’s is less of a goal here. Here it’s like people just do it for fun because they enjoy it as a hobby,” Sierk said. “The local scene is mostly comprised of people learning and mostly doing it for fun.”
Though there is a more of an intramural vibe to the stand-up scene in Rochester, Sierk acknowledged that the other end of the spectrum is just as present. The Comedy Club in Webster seats 190 people and is classified as an A-room. The club consistently brings top name talent to the area.
“If you want to be a comedian you just park yourself at a table in the back of that club on Thursdays and Fridays and watch,” Sierk said.
Mark Ippolito is the director of operations at The Comedy Club. He opened the club a little over seven years ago when it was just an old pool hall. “At the time there weren’t any comedy clubs at all,” Ippolito said. “So there was a need for stand-up comedy and a comedy club.”
Currently Ippolito is in charge of booking comedians. Ippolito is the man behind bringing national comedians like Marc Maron, Dave Attell, and Drew Carey to Rochester.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Ippolito said. “Since I’ve been in the business so long I’ve gotten to know people and have a good reputation.”
Though Ippolito occasionally uses talent agents to bring comedians to The Comedy Club, he normally prefers to just go through connections he’s made over years of being in the business.
That time spent in the business, and spent in Rochester, has given Ippolito a clear view on the comedy scene in the area. He categorizes the scene into two different groups, similar to Sierk.
“There’s the people that really want to do this for a living. They’re always writing and performing on a nightly basis. Showing up to the great open mics we have. Really trying, showing up on a weekly basis, hounding me for spots. Those are the people that are really, really serious about it,” Ippolito said. “Then there is this other group that feels it’s this really hip thing to do.”
Many local comedians from the former group, Ippolito said, are now working the road regularly and have paying careers in comedy. Much of the national talent that comes through the club also benefits the local comedians.
“It’s always a plus to talk to people that are in the business to get ahead in the business,” Ippolito said.
In a more intimate city like Rochester, local stand-ups also can benefit from talking with each other. “You’re in a really tight community. You’re definitely going to know each other. You’re going to write jokes together. It’s going to feel more like a family,” Sierk said.
Those performing on the stage and writing off of it are only half of the scene, though. The people filling the seats make up a large part of the local scene.
Sierk, having experience in bigger markets, sees that many in Rochester are fascinated by stand-up comedy. “In New York everyone you know is a performer and they’re jaded. Trying to get three people to come to your show is impossible,” Sierk said. “If you say you do stand-up people here in Rochester are like ‘Oh wow, really?’”
That enthusiasm pours over into the crowd, as it is easy to find people to fill seats because of the general excitement around the craft.
Often, the excitement comes from the general youth and therefore naiveté of the scene in Rochester. That works both for and against local comedians.
Sierk believes working out new material in Rochester is somewhat difficult, simply because of the lack of stages to perform on. In New York City she could do a set multiple times a night at different clubs. In Rochester it is a much smaller rotation.
The naiveté plays into a comedian’s hands, though, when they do get their chance on stage. “The audience isn’t as knowledgeable about comedy here so you can get away with a lot of stuff,” Sierk said. “You could do a hacky premise and no one would know.”
The scene is set up for success for both those working out material and those taking it very seriously and working to be full time comedians.
“Rochester has been extremely blessed with a lot of talent,” Ippolito said.
Overall, the Rochester scene has something for everyone-- the working comedian, the lawyer doing a set once a month, and the fans, both casual and passionate.
This story by Greg Pokriki is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.