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Funny Friends Unite

From left: Bob Fredericks, Ashley Stommen and J. Nate Tilka all host open-mic comedy shows in Kalamazoo.
Comedians come together to build thriving Kalamazoo comedy scene

Bob Fredericks is a man who sleeps until 10:30 a.m. and is not afraid to put on a chicken suit. The proof is printed on his business card, which shows Fredericks wearing a flaming Pabst Blue Ribbon box on his head and advertises his semi-monthly comedy open-mic night.

The 26-year-old customer service representative is part of a group of local comedians who say they are building one of the strongest grassroots comedy scenes in Michigan. Kalamazoo’s current comedy scene, which goes back about five years, includes six open mics as well as regular showcases where only polished jokes make the cut. The showcases are sometimes headlined by nationally touring acts.

Among the zealots of this burgeoning scene are longtime Kalamazoo resident Fredericks; his friend J. Nate Tilka (who goes by Nate); Ashley Stommen, who is the newly appointed host of the Louie’s Back Room open mic; and any number of other hilarious, hard-working comedians who have been getting on stage for years.

In fact, Fredericks runs the open mic at Shakespeare’s Lower Level every first and third Thursday of the month with such professional focus you might forget that, as he hands you his business card, he facetiously says, “I’m learning to adult.”

“Bob is an enigma,” says Adam West, a 35-year-old jewelry salesman and four-year veteran of the Kalamazoo comedy scene. “Most comedians are introverts offstage and don’t have a whole lot of friends. Bob is the opposite. He goes out and makes a lot of friends and they all flock to him.”

Fredericks, who is two years into a marketing degree program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, is both a practiced comedian and a near-whiz when it comes to discussing comedy, but he says he’s not the only force helping the local comedy scene flourish. Aspiring comics here offer a broad range of talent, from the understated style of 30-year-old Tilka to the goofy presence of aviation instructor Andrew Van Houton, and they give audiences endless opportunities to laugh.

Kalamazoo’s history of hilarity

The road to laughter in Kalamazoo has been a rocky one, at least for venues dedicated to comedy.

In 2005, Gary Fields Comedy Club operated for a year and a half in the space that is now Shakespeare’s Lower Level before going out of business. After that, The Laughing Post tried to make it in the same space, with similar results.

In 2013, the minds behind downtown Kalamazoo’s Entertainment District, which includes Wild Bull, Monaco Bay and The Gatsby, unveiled The Kalamazoo Comedy Company inside Wild Bull, with the aim of making weekly comedy a mainstay of entertainment offerings in town. They worked with local comedians and national acts, but the club didn’t stick around.

It seemed Kalamazoo wasn’t big enough to carry a pure comedy venue, and even venues that offered diverse acts — like the 411 Club, which once hosted numerous bands and blues artists in addition to comedians — weren’t able to bring in enough revenue from comedy.

The current scene, however, has been built from the ground up by a community of passionate artists and appears to run like a professional operation. But there is one man who gets much of the recognition for jump-starting the scene: 40-year-old automotive salesman Eric D. Steward.

A comedian himself, Steward is often credited with getting the handful of open mics around the area up and running. In early 2011, Steward started the first open mic in Louie’s Back Room, the performance venue inside Louie’s Trophy House Grill.

“My comedy career started with the open-mic scene,” says Steward, who was raised in Dowagiac and now lives in Kalamazoo. “But my goal was always to help others out, to get to that point where they feel like they can do comedy wherever. I’ve always been a big fan of stand-up and spent a lot of money going to comedy shows before I ever shared a stage.”

After starting the open mic at Louie’s, Steward co-hosted an open mic at Shakespeare’s, and in March of 2012 asked Fredericks to host the Shakespeare’s show.

Fredericks recalls that when Steward asked him, “Do you want to host this show?” Fredericks thought he meant just once. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I could do that tonight.’ And he said, ‘No, do you want this to be your show? I can’t do this and Louie’s at the same time.’”

In time, Steward passed the hosting of Louie’s open-mic night over to Michael Burd, a comedian who now lives in Boston. Jen Dama then ran the Louie’s show and, after taking a job in Chicago, passed it to Stommen in early 2016.

“The nice thing about Louie’s is that everyone always comes back to that room,” Steward says. “That one right there is the root of Kalamazoo comedy.”

Steward still performs, most recently at The Black River Tavern, in South Haven. He also promotes R&B acts as well as bigger names in comedy who play Kalamazoo’s State Theatre.

So, where’s the party?

When he first started doing stand-up, West didn’t realize Kalamazoo had comedy so he traveled to Ann Arbor to perform.

Born in Pontiac and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, West moved to Kalamazoo in 2000 after deciding his temperament wasn’t suited for college at Lake Superior State University. He and fellow comedian Perry Menken now co-host a Friday-night comedy show at Brite Eyes Brewing Co., with just a microphone hooked up to an amp sitting on the floor.

“It’s old-school,” West says. “You’re almost eye-to-eye with people, telling them jokes. When you see comedy on a stage, there’s a bit of separation, which is more of a traditional joke-telling format.”

West says he prefers to be “on the people’s level” doing a style of “guerilla comedy” that puts people on edge. “But in a good way,” he says. “That helps the laughter come out.”

For Stommen, fate intervened in her decision to become a performing comedian. After she experienced a period of depression, singing karaoke was the only thing that felt worthwhile to her. One night while Stommen was waiting to sing at a local venue, a woman insisted she join her and friends at a nearby table. The woman told Stommen she was funny and should come to an open mic she had started attending.
“I was like, ‘No, that’s not me,’” Stommen says, but the woman persisted and eventually introduced her to Fredericks, who gave Stommen stage time the day before her 24th birthday.

This past March, Stommen celebrated three years of doing stand-up comedy. She is the second woman in a row to host the Louie’s show, and that’s no accident. “Jen was adamant about having a female host,” Stommen says. “When I first started, there were a handful of girls. It has quadrupled since then.”

Stommen wants to see more women do stand-up comedy, however. “You’re like the mystical beast: ‘Oh, there’s a girl on the stage? What? That’s crazy!’”

“Just get on the stage. That is 80 percent of the battle,” she advises. “The funniest people I know are too afraid to actually get on stage. Just do it.”

What’s so funny?

Comedians may be cruelly self-deprecating, chronically gesticulating over-sharers, but most are also very serious about their work.

“I wear bows, and people are like, ‘She looks so cute!’ Then I just hit them smack in the face with the dirtiest joke, and they’re like, ‘Whoa, didn’t expect that,’” Stommen says.

Tilka, who sells replacement windows for a living, sometimes hosts up to four shows a week around Kalamazoo and produces regular showcases that sell out. He is hyper-aware of how to keep laughter going in a room. “It’s like a wave you are trying to ride,” Tilka says. “That’s why comics dislike hecklers so much, because they throw a wrench into things.”

That’s also why shows have warm-up acts that get the crowd in the mood to laugh. But just because you’re on a roll doesn’t mean anything. “You can have everybody going and then say something that they don’t like,” Tilka says. “Then everybody stops laughing.”

“Comedy is painful,” Stommen says. “You do a show, there’s two people in the audience, and you can’t get them to laugh. You’re like, ‘Well, that sucked.’ The next night you do a show with 40 people in the audience and do the exact same set and kill. You’re like, ‘Well, that was nice.’ The next night it could suck again. It’s just all up and down.”

So what is it that motivates these comedians to get up on stage?

“I wanted to be a poet until I was 15 or so,” says West, who has been writing since he was 7. “Then I got discouraged. I didn’t think that I could be a writer. I didn’t think I had the discipline or anything like that. Now I like jokes better because it’s like a poem but, like, with a point.”

Stommen, who was born in Texas and raised in Michigan, is a non-traditional student working toward a degree in communication at Western Michigan University. For her, performing is a way to entertain herself. “Some people jump off of bridges or out of planes,” she says. “This is what I do for my adrenaline kick.”

Another kick the comedians talk about is watching newcomers on stage for the first time.

“If I have someone new who doesn’t know what’s going on with the scene at all, I try to give them a little bit of stage time so at least they get to try it out,” Fredericks says.

The connectedness of the comedy community comes through when you talk to the local comedians.

Tilka says he thought about quitting comedy in 2015, but his social life was completely wrapped up in it. “Our scene is different than almost anywhere else,” he says. “We’re a lot closer, and we hang out together. We didn’t have a club or anything. We had to come together to make stuff happen.”

West speaks of Van Houton, co-host of a free comedy show at Harvey’s Upstairs on Wednesday nights, as if he were a hero. “When I first started on the scene, Andrew was one of the shining stars,” West says. “He was pretty new, too, but he’s got such a sharp mind. He’s a brilliant joke writer.”

Some of the comedians hang out together so much that they have started a yearly camping trip. “All we do is get drunk in the woods and yell at each other the whole time,” Stommen says. In other words, comedians camp the same way many other Americans do.

In addition to being close enough to beg rides from each other, huddle in booths at shows and relax together after sets, the comedians have a whole pool of judges of their material at their disposal, Stommen says. She can say, “Hey, what did you think?” and someone will tell her what to change or what they liked.

‘A very unique thing’

While the efforts to bring big, national comedians to town are now in the hands of larger venues such as the State Theatre, the all-but-underground comedy scene brings a wide range of talent to Kalamazoo stages.

“The scene here is crazy,” Tilka says. “We have people come from Indiana and Ohio just to do our shows.”

“I had some Chicago comedians at my show a little while ago,” Fredericks chimes in.

As in many other entertainment industries, networking is crucial in the world of comedy. Kalamazoo comedians often go to comedy clubs in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Indiana and Ohio to perform and meet others in the business.

Many of these club scenes are powered by Funny Business, a national entertainment agency whose website is reminiscent of a health care site with its offering of eight varieties of comedy under one of its tabs. (Don’t worry: “Murder Mystery” and “Jugglers” are under a different tab.)

But Kalamazoo’s comedy operates under a different authority, or rather, no real authority at all. The open-mic scene here is run entirely by unsigned talent, and that, some might say, is the beauty of it.

“I always remind people, ‘We’re not in L.A. We’re not in New York,’” Stommen says. “We’re not competing against each other. We are building a community because this is what we like to do.”

“It’s a very unique thing that’s sprouted up,” Tilka says. “It’s really just a lot of people working together.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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