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The basement of the Big Hunt is nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to its devilish decor, claustrophobic ambience, and red-light glow. The name was especially fitting on a recent Friday night.
A capacity crowd was there for an alt-comedy show, but the mood was tense, as if the people assembled didn’t sign up for an evening of absurd, surreal, and awkward bits about parental sex and nuclear winter. For some, it was comedy nirvana; for others, comedy hell.
“It felt like a lot of first dates were going bad in there,” says comedian Jamel Johnson, who performed that night. “Generally there are two kinds of audience member: one that wants to laugh and another that challenges you to make them laugh. You see the latter more often at local shows. Fools just act different when they’ve never heard of you.”
The audience might not have heard of Johnson before, but that will probably change soon. The six-year veteran is on his way to Los Angeles, where he’ll be one of a number of growing fish who have fled the District’s small-pond comedy scene for better opportunities in L.A. or New York.
For decades, the District has been a proving ground for comics on their way to bigger and better things. Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Patton Oswalt, Rory Scovel, and Wanda Sykes are just a few of the comedians who have started their careers here. In recent years, rising talents Aparna Nancherla, Seaton Smith, and Brandon Wardell have followed.
That tradition was the focus of the 202 Comedy Festival, held in April. “We wanted to have a festival to celebrate all the great comics who have developed in D.C. over the years and to get everyone back in one place,” says Sean Joyce, the comedian and promoter who co-produced the festival, which featured more than 100 comics across 18 shows on four days of programming.
But while the festival had a decidedly local bent—about three-quarters of the festival’s talent was based in the D.C. area—its opening and closing shows were headlined by some of D.C.’s most successful recent exports. That comics have to leave D.C. before they become a headliner at a local festival says something about the state of comedy in the District, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the local scene.
The 202 Comedy Festival was the culmination of Joyce’s groundwork: Under his Underground Comedy banner, he produces stand-up shows every night of the week and has built a new infrastructure for D.C. comedy. With shows held primarily at the Big Hunt and Bier Baron, his mini-empire provides local comics with much-needed stage time at places besides the D.C. area’s establishment comedy venues (the D.C. Improv and Arlington Drafthouse).
“Thanks to Sean Joyce, there’s this whole level of comics that can get up every single night and really try to do unique and interesting stuff,” says Brandon Wetherbee, the host of the You, Me, Them, Everybody podcast and managing editor of Brightest Young Things.
Nancherla left D.C. for L.A. in 2010, and recently returned to headline 202’s closing show. The District’s comedy landscape now looks different from when she left it, she says, but the spirit remains the same. The McLean native, who has written for Late Night with Seth Meyers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, says that D.C.’s DIY attitude is what makes its comedy scene great. “Whoever is active in the scene helps structure which shows are going on,” she says. “A lot of the stage time would be people putting on their own shows.” But eventually, playing the same circuit felt “stagnant,” and Nancherla felt the itch to move.
“When I started here, there were a lot of people that I felt were upperclassmen to look up to,” she says, “but when you feel like you’re the upperclassman, then it’s time to leave.”
Johnson is the next D.C. “upperclassman” whose time has come. He has earned a reputation as one of the best comics in D.C., whether by himself or as part of his “avant-garde musical comedy band and variety show” Romane & Lettuce.
“Jamel Johnson is the funniest stand-up comic in Washington, D.C., in terms of consistency and quality output,” says Wetherbee. “Even when he’s performing stuff I’ve seen a dozen times, I still enjoy watching him.” He adds that Johnson’s intangibles—his ability to read a crowd and play any type of room—have made him the “litmus test” for D.C. comics.
Johnson, a 28-year-old Woodbridge native, works relentlessly, performing at eight or nine shows a week. Not only was he on four bills during the festival, but Johnson was coming off a major week: He opened for Louis C.K. at the Lincoln Theatre and was part of a show Kevin Hart filmed in D.C.—a new Comedy Central stand-up showcase called Hart of the City.
“The Kevin Hart thing was very unexpected,” Johnson says. As part of the show, he filmed both a stand-up set at the Big Hunt and a conversation with Hart at Ben’s Chili Bowl. “I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one time with the man, but he was very chill and definitely about his paper.” (That’s an understatement: In 2015, Forbes calculated Hart’s one-year earnings at $28.5 million.)
The bookings were the most recent in a string of shows that have put Johnson on the path to L.A. He started performing there back in 2014, an experience he compares to “seven people talking about what award show they wrote for, and your boy.” But despite his outsider status, he was able to get on shows like The Meltdown, the popular stand-up showcase hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray that has spawned a Comedy Central show of the same name. After gigs like that, Johnson knew a change in location would soon be in the cards.
“When I went to L.A. and had success getting on shows, I was like, ‘fuck, I’m gonna do this here now,’” he says. “It wasn’t because of the ceiling [in D.C.]—the reason was because the money aspect. I feel like six months in L.A., if you’re really grinding, who knows.”
Johnson says he has “no goal and no plans,” but has “never been this busy before in [his] life.” And while the move will mean leaving his hometown, he seems excited for a new set of challenges in a place that appreciates the novelty of a “new guy” on the scene.
Even as D.C. prepares to graduate one of its best, the city has no shortage of underclassmen ready to fill the void. A handful of “the city’s brightest 20’s-ish comedians” were the focus of It’s Lit, a show hosted by Shelley Kim (she originally wanted to call the show Fuckboys and Poets, but decided to go with the more marketable name). The 23-year-old started doing comedy during college, and even though she’s not seasoned enough to make a move yet, Kim sees one in her future. “I think it’s possible to have a comedy career outside of L.A. or New York, but those cities just have more opportunities to do comedy full-time.”
Apparently, no matter how long you’ve been a comic in D.C., the twin sirens of the coastal capitals are irresistible. But that doesn’t mean D.C. must suffer as a second-class comedy city. In fact, the District’s status as a feeder system for the big leagues keeps the scene from stagnating, offers audiences a wide variety of styles, and lets comics find their voices away from the eyes and ears of industry professionals.
Plus, there are more opportunities to perform and watch comedy in D.C. than in recent years. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, if there was one open-mic location a night, that was a lot,” says D.C. Improv owner and manager Allyson Jaffe, who has seen the D.C. scene grow during her nearly two decades at the Improv. “Now there are multiple places running open mics every night of the week.” The club is still the preeminent venue in D.C. for national headliners, many of whom now bring their own opening acts. That’s led Jaffe and her team to get creative with their programming, booking local comics for weekend showcases in the lounge and mid-week shows in the main room.
Bars like Wonderland Ballroom feature long-running shows, theaters like the Howard and Lincoln nab marquee names, and venues like the Black Cat and 9:30 Club are booking more comedy shows than ever. In April, Arlington Drafthouse opened a downtown D.C. location modeled after the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And while the 202 Comedy Festival offered a hyper-local approach to booking, Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball has given national comics a reason to visit every fall, with about a score of slots reserved for local comics each year.
“People don’t necessarily think about D.C. as a comedy town, but the audiences are really smart, passionate about the world, and well-informed, and they make for good comedy audiences,” says Nancherla. “The scene has been active in various forms for so long that it just sustains itself in different iterations.”
Many of those generations were on display across the 202 Comedy Festival’s four days, often in the same show. Johnson opened for D.C. success stories like Nancherla and Smith at the Black Cat, and relative newcomers like Kim opened for new successes like Wardell in the Big Hunt basement. It was a winning formula, with several shows selling out and packed houses every night of the festival.
“It was more than we could have asked for,” Joyce writes. “We would be crazy not to have another festival next year.” And if history is any guide, some of the names will be familiar—even if they had to leave D.C. to get that way.