Looking for Comedy in Nashville

“One time I took the whole crowd out to the parking lot to have a fire-breathing contest with a guy dressed like Jesus. So it was more of a variety show, I guess. It was a friggin’ mess. So I…”

A piercing whaddup explodes towards the bar. It’s the last Wednesday of the month at Springwater Supper Club & Lounge, Nashville’s most revered/reviled dive bar, located on the edge of Centennial Park equidistant from the Piggly Wiggly and the city’s scale model of the Parthenon. Craig Smith is tending bar and telling tales of the Nashville’s turn-of-the-century comedy scene when he ‘s interrupted by the the shrill decrescendo of the whaddup. She had to have called a couple of minutes ago looking for the Dive Laughing open-mic, disappointed that it wasn’t happening but clearly not dissuaded from hanging out.

Smith makes the connection quick, falling into the wary small talk of a long-time bartender; careful to avoid too much dialog, allowing this lady the leeway to say whatever crazy thing she needed to say. This woman is a bundle of day-glo energy dressed to the hilt in a manner that could be best described as action-sports-stripper, looking for all the world like she had just got off the bus and gone straight to the Buckwild audition. Her spandex-spider-web-and-tank-top combo with the stone-washed-fringe-holed jeans and fluorescent oversized skater shoes stands out in one of the last enclaves of un-gentrified Music City scum-culture; amidst the tobacco-stained Boomer-drunks, transient crust punks, and junkie grifters drinking 7 oz ponies of Miller High Life.

She’s looking for the Springwater she’s heard about on the internet, the Springwater where Ke$ha makes TV shows and The Black Keys shoot music videos. She’s looking for the Nashville where everybody is sexy and successful, where everybody has star potential and dreams are only one drunk night away from coming true. She’s looking for the Nashville that is, at this very moment, being beamed into millions of homes on the ABC network. She’s looking for Connie Britton and Hayden Panetiere. She’s clearly in the wrong place.

Smith, with his gauged ears and goatee, shoots me a look that says ‘this will be even better than an interview’ before introducing himself. She blurts out her real name, Jules, and grimaces.

“Miss Kitty. You can call me Miss Kitty.”

“Well Miss Kitty, are you drinking?”

This is Miss Kitty’s first open mic, or would be if there were an open mic tonight. She’s never heard of the guy doing stand-up tonight – Nashville underground fixture Chris Crofton – but she orders a Bud Light. She’s been working up material and she really thinks she can break out. It’s a quaint bit of over-optimism, an adorably exaggerated self-confidence,  that doesn’t usually creep into Nashville’s comedy underground, but is certainly one of the city’s defining characteristics. Nashville is the sort of town where nobody can name a city council member but everybody knows the dumpster Taylor Swift throws her fan mail in.

“It’s pretty much about blow jobs,” says Miss Kitty, nervously playing with her skater-Betty stocking cap.

“I love blow jobs,” says Smith, deadpanning for effect.

“Everybody does. Unless you’re giving them. In which case you don’t really want to be that one but, uh,  if you want a relationship to work, uh, basically eat the shit out of that dick. Over and over and over.”

“Save it for the stage.”

“Oh, oh, I’ve already said this to millions, so…”

Ends up that Miss Kitty, first-time almost-open micer, had been on a reality television show named the Bikini Hockey League. She was ready for the spotlight. Her tense delivery of over-rehearsed lines reeks of weird desperation, an odd mix of ‘failure by grace of location” and “life as self-help slogan. Nashville is a tertiary city in the celebrity-industrial complex, the place where the not-so-popular-but-popular-enough sausage get’s made, a place where the glimmer of hope is enough for most artists, wannabe or otherwise. It’s city that fosters a certain level of self delusion.

“I’m about to rock it, definitely. I’ve already been in touch with several famous comedians and some Hollywood company wanted to do a television show based on my life…”

It’s also a city fostering a comedy scene, almost against it’s will. It’s a city where stage time was almost non-existent a few years ago but now there’s a show almost every night of the week. In different corners of the city – in dive bars, diners, rock clubs and coffeehouses –  the comedy community is carving out their own space in the hyper-competitive entertainment landscape. The city’s greatest contributions to the comedic arts are pretty much limited to Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax”, Hee Haw,  and the classic “I can’t fit this poster in my backpack” episode from David Cross’ Let America Laugh. And the endless parade of Daily Show/Colbert fodder from the state legislature, obviously.

“I was like, well, that sounds interesting but not shit happens in my life…”

Miss Kitty explains the intricacies of the Bikini Hockey League and life as a fourth-string-reality-show  participant in a level of detail that can only be described as “unsolicited.” Smith’s eyes dart across the wood paneled room to the back door, desperate for distraction. Chris Crofton with his black leather jacket, bald head and gray-and-ginger beard comes in twirling his keys, looking across the room, taking stock of the band loading gear on stage and saying his hellos to the regulars, making his way over to Smith, Kitty and I. Kitty doesn’t stop talking. Crofton signals and we cut out the past the well-worn pool table, through the cloud of stale smoke and out the front door.

As we bolt you can hear Miss Kitty talking to somebody. Maybe Smith, maybe not, but Miss Kitty kept talking, and talking.

“…unless you follow me around twenty-four-seven which then I get into SO much trouble.”

* * *

“Then he ripped off this tear away sweat-outfit thing, exercise outfit and was just wearing a bow tie and a Speedo. And then ripped pages out of the bible. And ate them,”

Earlier that day at the Nashville Farmers Market — not “an artisanal charmer” at least according to the New York Times —  we sit down for the weekly comics lunch organized by scene veteran and NashvilleStandUp.com proprietor Chad Riden. It’s an informal affair, a meeting indistinct amongst the tables of lunching co-workers, indistinct from the state employees and the Christian publishing drones, and attracting about as much attention from the average passerby. It’s just six people with trays trying to fit at a table that seats four, talking about work.

“They ran him off the stage and I never saw him again,” says Riden.

“He was legendary. When I first Started doing open mics at Zanies and they would email you the rules, and one of the rules was you can not eat pages out of the bible.” says Mark Anundson. “That guy altered the rules for years.”

Riden and Anundson – a self-described “guy with a day job” – are joined by Kendra Corrie and a couple of other folks, all road-comics who have been working the southern circuit with some degree of success for years. They’ve been around, they’ve seen the scene and the city mutate along the way. They were around for the Bar Car days – the early 00s incubator for many of the city’s veterans – and they were around when Craig Smith started his monthly at the notorious Elliston Place rock club The End. Hell, Riden even saw Smith’s legendary “suspension” set at Springwater. But they’ve also been elsewhere and have a sense of what Nashville lacks.

“Nashville comics are great, but socially inept for the most part. They’re lovely people but – ” says Corrie. “They just can’t get it together to be supportive in the way that I think that they would if they just weren’t afraid of human touch.”

But there is more at play here, more issues than slackers mumbling their way through dick jokes in a haze of haphephobia. Nashville for all it’s media presence, despite the girth of it’s brand is only an average size city – a population of roughly 600,000 – sprawled over an entire county with only one full-time, dedicated comedy club, Zanie’s. There’s a very visible media sector, but historically it has been focused primarily on the production and dissemination of country music and its affiliated aesthetics. It’s been tough if you’re the kind of person that likes to wear shirts with sleeves.

“Comics get to a certain level here and then they move. [Nate] Bargatze went to Chicago and then New York. Billy Wayne [Davis] moved to Seattle, ya know, at some point people have to move,” says Riden. “We don’t have enough comics that are on the road and working that are still here and committed to the scene. If I’m the senior guy in the room, that’s fucked.”

“It’s a transient city,” interjects Corrie. “It’s central to everything, it’s close enough to Chicago, close enough to New York that it makes sense to say ‘that’s the next step’.”

“So we hemorrhage talent once it gets to a certain level” says Riden.

Nashville’s a small city, at least in comparison to other major media hubs, but it’s also home to one of the most finicky audiences you’ll likely find anywhere. There is an intense concentration of music business professionals here – The Atlantic Cities’ Richard Florida seems to think it’s the most saturated of all music centers which, yeah, that’s pretty tough to argue against – but that makes for an unreasonable concentration of people that are unreasonably hard to entertain. Short of eating a bible wearing only a speedo, it’s difficult to get a rise out audience members here, if you can get an audience to start with.

“Nashville’s just a weird place. If anything, people are used to things being awesome,” says Anundson. “There’s not a lot of forgiveness.”

“People here are conditioned to high level talent”, says Riden.

“For everything,” points out Corrie.

* * *

“I think a lot of comics are afraid of doing stuff with musicians. I know I’ve done some things with bands on the show and they’ve just been so horrible. Just a nightmare. ”

It’s another Wednesday night and we’re in a Greek diner on 8th Ave. S. (a former red light district, home to jack shacks and tittie bars, that’s become a hub of hipster activity in recent years) talking to comedian Gary Fletcher over a pre-show dinner. Fletcher is on his way to perform at Zanies — the city’s lone comedy club — as part of a NashvilleStandUp.com showcase with Chad Riden, Billy Wayne Davis and a slew of comics in town looking for that sweet college money at the National Association of Campus Activities conference happening downtown.

Fletcher — tall, mild mannered — is the point man for Corporate Juggernaut, a loose co-operative of comedians working to broaden the scope of standup in Nashville. In 2012 they released a compilation Corporate Juggernaut: A Live Recording Album featuring scene-staples like Brad Edward, Sean Parrot, and James Austin Johnson after a successful Kickstarter campaign. They promote shows at The High Watt, a rock club a couple miles of north of Zanies, doing one-night stands with folks like Rory Scovel, Kyle Kinane and Pete Holmes.

They also host a monthly at Springwater, an open mic at The High Watt’s sister club, Mercy Lounge, and a Moth-style storytelling night named Pictures of Fireworks at the locavore coffeehouse near Vanderbilt University. And in between you can find many of the same folks working Nowhere, an animated series helmed by Sean Staggs and Doug Morenic and animated by Fletcher. Corporate Juggernaut maybe the alt-comedy ying to Zanie’s traditional-club yang.

“For instance, the other night, the Sean O’Connor show. We had Diarrhea Planet with him on first and — I knew this was going to happen — it was people trickling in the entire night,” says Fletcher. “There was a band on the show and [music fans] are just used to a different kind of atmosphere. And that makes comics nervous about doing stuff with bands.”

There is a weird tension between Nashville’s comedy and music communities. Well, “between” might not be the right word — there is a weird tension projected towards the music community from the comedy camp. It’s the nerd/cool kid dichotomy played out on a city-wide scale, the ninety-pound weakling showing up at the  the beautiful people’s private beach. There’s a tinge of resentment in Nashville comedy that seems to be saying ‘we would be musicians if we could, and we’ll mention that. A lot.’ It feels like a scapegoat for poor attendance at hole-in-the-wall shows, but to most people in Music City, comedy starts and stops at the front door of Zanies.

“There’s always going to be parents and older people that go see stuff. Most people in their forties aren’t going to go to rock club to hear some comedian that was on Conan and talked about weed,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher is the last of the CJ founders left in Music City — John Thorton Jr. has relocated to Durham, North Carolina to pursue a degree at Duke University’s divinity school, and James Austin Johnson recently relocated to Los Angeles. And while new folks have been brought into the fold. Author/comedian Jane Borden makes the hour-plus commute from Sewanee, TN to run the storytelling show, The High Watt’s manager Brandon Jazz handles much of the booking — and audiences have been growing across the board, there is still a shadow looming overhead screaming ‘get the fuck out of Dodge!’

“I’d like to move out to L.A. at some point,” says Fletcher. “But people have told me that at this point it would be too soon, it’d be kind of a dumb idea and I agree with them.

“I might as well work really hard and try to get really good, that way when people do see me, when I’ve done something that people recognize, I can go on tour.”

In this sentiment Fletcher sounds like his peers in the music community: conquering Nashville is not necessarily the point. The point is to use the city as a whetstone, so that you can venture in to the wild prepared to shiv some motherfuckers. As Nashville’s cultural cache increases — author Ann Patchett, chef Tandy Wilson, filmmaker Harmony Korine are all bringing home previously unseen levels of non-music renown — it makes that shiv go in a little easier, helps pierce the tough exteriors of bigger, burlier entertainment centers.

“People are looking at [the city] in a different way, so when they hear ‘Nashville comic’ they don’t automatically think Larry the Cable Guy type stuff. All the attention on Nashville has helped us to not appear as dumb rednecks to  the rest of the world.”

* * *

It’s Wednesday again. The other Wednesday. We’ve just met Miss Kitty — run from Miss Kitty, honestly —  and jumped down the down a block from Springwater, and into a black, turn-of-the-century Volvo sitting in a Starbucks’ parking lot. It’s an hour before his monthly Springwater residency and Chris Crofton — black leather jacket, bald head and gray-and-ginger beard — is uncaffeinated but rippling with an anxious energy.

“In the early 90s I didn’t tape any of my shows, I just went there to the show, brought a huge steamer-trunk with nothing in it and pretended that I was a prop comic that couldn’t get in my trunk,” says Chris Crofton.

Originally from Connecticut, Crofton spent the early 90s in New York City toiling in a stand up before moving south to write songs and play music, a punk rocker at home with Nashville’s reputation as a rock-hostile environment back when it was still rock-hostile. Crofton has been a staple of Nashville’s underground scene for years, as host of the popular Best of Bread show on now-defunct college radio station WRVU, the titular titan of industry on the long running absurdist-improv podcast The Chris Crofton Show and as the frontman for the Alcohol Stuntband. The Stuntband — who are about to release a Kickstarter-funded new album after an extended hiatus — was a favorite of Nashville pre-“It City”, best known for skewering the nascent hipsterati with barbed humor and bludgeoning riffs.

“I went back to doing stand up in 2006 because even though our band had done well, once you do well in Nashville you do well and then go down. Then some other band does well and another band does well and the old band is just kind becomes the old band,” says Chris Crofton. “So in 2006 Craig Smith said ‘Didn’t you used to do stand up in New York, do you want to do it again?’ That was when I went on stage with a bunch of old clock radios and said I was rich and smashed them.”

Since returning to stand up he’s appeared in Trash Humpers — Harmony Korine’s lo-fi no-brow prequel to the hi-fi high-brow Spring Breakers — and Super Zeroes a little-seen comedy with, um, Bone Crusher in it. He also released the 2012 album Pearls Before Swine: Live at Springwater album on Chicken Ranch Records, an Austin, Texas label best known as the stateside home to Japanese cartoon-punk-band Peelander Z. Crofton’s work has a car crash appeal but Pearls Before Swine manages to hit new lows — it was recorded in front of a belligerently disinterested crowd at a notoriously disrespectful club. And it’s pressed to vinyl, preserved for the ages.

“I think the thing with comedy in Nashville is that — I don’t think this is going to work for your piece, I think your piece is supposed to be that there’s a scene here — but I don’t think that you can take this scene to L.A. I think it would just get destroyed. They’d be like ‘what is this fucking small town bullshit?’

Crofton doesn’t run in stand-up circles — “I’m happily avoiding other comedians. I don’t want to talk about jokes.” — and has had trouble bringing his voice back to the city’s airwaves. His anarchic sense of humor occasionally runs afoul of this still-conservative town and his insistence on reminding the city just how uncool it used to be doesn’t quite jibe with the new transplants and their hipster-Manifest Destiny vibe. Crofton’s comedy is liminal, existing within older comedic traditions, grotesquely out-of-date pop culture references and nonsequitor non-punchlines; a Dadaist reflection of what audiences have grown to expect from a Nashville comedian — he’s willing to make his audience uncomfortable.

“It’s got to be cutthroat, people have to be honest. If you’re performing for your friends — and that happens a lot in Nashville, in music and comedy — you’re wasting your time,” says Crofton. “Because they don’t want to be dicks.”

“You’re just going to keep doing the same shitty jokes. And when you get in front of some audience of strangers you are going to die — there’s gonna be silence — and all the warm and fuzzy open mics aren’t going to amount to shit.”

* * *

“…so he is passed out and you can whirl the shit out of his hair then cuz he is passed the fuck out.”

It’s a week out from where we started and we’re back at Springwater, for the monthly Dive Laughing open-mic hosted by Sean Parrott. In a shocking turn of events, Miss Kitty — the Bikini Hockey League veteran with the voluminous whaddup — is actually here, actually on stage, actually telling jokes into a microphone. Well “jokes” might be a bit of stretch, but she is certainly saying things loudly, into a microphone. She looks more respectable than before, trading in her skater-Betty stocking cap and spandex-spider-web shirt for a form-fitting red dress and hounds tooth coat. The audience, almost entirely made up of comics and their friends, isn’t entirely sure how to react.

“You can give him as much time as you want, spending time with you after he is passed out, if you’re just spending twenty minutes doing HEAD-work moving that shit around puh-huh…”

Miss Kitty is going by the name of Jules “Motherfucking” Lynn this week — “Not a lot of people use their middle name” quips Parrott during her intro — and the crowd’s reaction is awkward. Nobody wants to be cruel to the newcomer; everyone in the room has bombed big, there are no high horses to sit on at Springwater, but you can tell the laughter is forced, awkward, riding the line between encouraging and disparaging.

“…Jessica and her fake tits I am sick of that bitch she is so skinny and she thinks she is great all you gotta do is suck the shit out of that dick, twenty minutes a day and he will listen…”

Lynn’s stage presence is frantic, excitable, almost like a puppy that’s just discovered how to bark, and it’s not entirely different from the city and it’s newfound relevancy. There’s a naivete in her delivery that echos the hopes and dreams of so many of the people that keep rolling into town, banking on luck to bring the bright lights, disbelieving the warnings of those that got into town long before it was cool.

“Thank you and goodnight. I’m Jules Motherfucking Lynn! First time on stage!”

And as Lynn makes her exit, stepping off the low stage and it’s beer-soaked carpet, the guffaws of mocking scenesters bounce off Springwater’s tobacco-stained walls and applause dies out almost as quickly as it started. Lynn is still caught up in the moment — she did it, she got on stage in front of a roomful of strangers and said her piece — and that’s not something to laugh at. In this city you don’t always catch a lot of raw, unguarded excitement, but Lynn doesn’t care. And when host Parrott calls her back to the stage to get that houndstooth jacket and she yells from the back of “I can’t forget my TWENNNNTY DOLLLLAR JACKET” and gets her best laugh of the night.

Nashville is not a comedy town, and may never be one, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is going to stop trying. As long there are outsiders, oddballs and weirdos in Music City there will be a comedy scene, whether that comedy scene continues to grow is unknown. Whether the outside world notices the talent within this community, whether the city itself recognizes the talent within this community, remains to be seen. As Sean Parrott reins in the room, regaining a sense of order after the whirlwind that is Jules Motherfucking Lynn, it’s evident that comedy and Music City have a future together. It may not be the best, it may not be the brightest but it exists and that’s enough of a victory for everyone involved. The future is wide open and that is all that counts.

“Your next comedian always signs up but is almost never in the room so I’ll just say his name and see what happens…”

Sean Maloney isn’t much of a musician either.

Looking for Comedy in Nashville