Behind the Mic: Inside Kitsap’s Burgeoning Comedy Scene
Just like the economy, stand-up comedy goes through a boom-and-bust cycle.
The genre boomed in the ‘80s, then waned in the wake of overexposure. Right now, some would say stand-up is booming, in no small part due to Netflix’s deluge of stand-up specials featuring popular comedians such as Louis C.K., Dave Chapelle and Maria Bamford.
Stand-up isn’t just booming nationwide. It’s booming right here in Kitsap County. Suquamish Clearwater Casino regularly hosts comedy nights. Bremerton’s Admiral Theater is no stranger to comedy, either. The theater hosted comedian and Movin’ 92.5 FM DJ Jubal Flagg last year, and has hosted parts of the Seattle International Comedy Competition for years.
Stand-up comedy isn’t new to Kitsap, though. The county has hosted comedy shows in some form since at least the ‘80s — iconic comedian Mitch Hedberg has even performed in Kitsap — but in recent years, new comedic forces have joined old stalwarts to create a burgeoning comedy scene in our own backyard.
New Kids on the Block
Growing up, Bremerton comedian Joseph Rogers was a fan of the big names in comedy. Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and George Carlin were three of his favorites.
But he never saw himself getting up on a stage and telling jokes — not until he attended a comedy show during a trip to Santa Monica, California about five or six years ago. The show was was one of many regularly held in someone’s garage; the shows would attract anywhere from 150 to 300 people, Rogers says.
That experience planted a seed in Rogers’ mind. He began toying with the idea of producing comedy shows, while performing as a comedian at the same time.
Over the past several years, he’s done just that, producing shows under the name “Comedy in Kitsap,” often participating as one of the acts. Rogers produces shows throughout Kitsap County, although regularly-used venues include both Mobster Mike’s and Cookies in Bremerton, and Slaughter County Brewing in Port Orchard.
“I’ve got a couple kids, and so for me to travel outside of Kitsap to do comedy isn’t all that realistic,” Rogers says. “I’m bringing the comedy to Kitsap, and also putting myself on the tickets as well, as added practice. But I try to always make sure that I put on a good show, so that way I’m not just putting myself on because I can.”
The shows Rogers produces feature comedians from a variety of locales. Touring comedians from out of state make appearances, though many of the comedians are from nearby Seattle. There’s also a smattering of local talent — up-and-comers from Kitsap who got their start participating in open mics.
Bremerton comedian Sean Pickering is one of them. Pickering says he has been a fan of stand-up comedy his entire life. Sometime in 2012, he saw a documentary about comedians on Netflix and it inspired him to search for open mics in the area. The closest one he found was in Tacoma.
“I did it for about eight months or so and then I really wasn’t getting any better,” he says. “There’s a lot of really good comedians in Tacoma and it was pretty intimidating, I guess. When Bremerton started doing it, it was like the local comedy scene, everybody was really cool and supportive — not that they’re not in Tacoma, It was just sort of, ‘I get to hang out with these guys.’”
Though the comedy scene fostered by Rogers is still relatively small, it’s growing every day, Pickering says.
“We get new comedians coming to the open mics and everything, and some of the new guys that come in are just heads and tails above what I was when I started,” he says.
Cris Larsen — also known by his stage name, The Great Cris — first flirted with comedy watching cartoons as a kid, and first tasted the thrill of performing for an audience in a kindergarten play about nutrition.
“I got to play the lead potato,” he says. When he tripped on his costume, he stood back up, waved his arms and shouted, “Ta-da!” eliciting laughs from the audience. It was a moment that hinted at the comedian that would emerge years later.
When he was older, Larsen got involved in community theater, including acting in plays at Bremerton Community Theatre.
He recalled playing District Attorney Tom Davenport in the play “Inherit the Wind,” which tells the story of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. He lamented the fact that, at the end of every show, his character lost. So he rewrote the final scene so that the DA won, and showed it to two other actors, who agreed it was hilarious.
Those kinds of humorous endeavors prompted Larsen’s friends to encourage him to write his own material. And in the 1980s, he began doing so, performing in stand-up comedy clubs like Jackson’s in Yakima.
“In that period of time, there was a huge comedy boom,” Larsen recalled. “There were shows everywhere. Clubs were looking for talent.”
Kitsap County was not immune to the comedy boom. Bremerton’s Clover Leaf Tavern has put on comedy shows since the 1980s, Larsen says. The clubhouses at McCormick Woods and White Horse golf courses in Port Orchard and Kingston, respectively, have been other reliable places over the years to catch a comedy show.
Building a Community
Forming communities is a central part of comedy, whether it’s fostering a local comedy scene, or forging connections with charitable endeavors.
Rogers is focused more on building a homegrown comedy community, and says doing so is important to encourage local comedians who are mostly performing comedy as a hobby.
“I’ve been in Bremerton for 16 years now and for a long time all my friends would be like, ‘Oh, Bremerton’s so lame. There’s nothing to do, blah blah blah,’” he says. “So when I was down in Santa Monica checking out those shows, I thought, ‘Man, Kitsap could really use a solid, regular comedy scene.’ Not only would it be something fun to do, but this isn’t a bad area, geographically, because we’re a ferry ride away from Seattle. I’ve got a couple comedians tonight that took the ferry to come over here. It’s really cool.”
For Larsen, “community” goes beyond the comedy community. He’s heavily involved with a variety of community causes, from the Rotary Club to the VFW. And he uses his gift of gab and promoting skills to support charitable causes throughout Kitsap County. Larsen specializes in putting on comedy shows as fundraisers. Many are held at the Cloverleaf Sports Ball and Grill in Bremerton.
“Most weekends we’re doing four shows” at the Cloverleaf, Larsen says. “Two on Friday, two on Saturday. This last 12 months, just around $300,000 has been raised — for PeeWees, for Soroptimists, for Relay for Life. Though we still do a few private comedy shows there, like for companies and the shipyard and stuff. I want to say we probably do a dozen or more of those.”
People can find out more about fundraising through Larsen’s comedy shows on his website.
Speaking at the end of last year, Larsen says he’d put on more than 500 shows in 2016.
Comedy, like most entertainment-based industries, isn’t like your typical 9-5 job. There are no training programs for comedians — at least, no formal ones, although there are classes for aspiring stand-up comedians, such as this one offered by Tacoma Comedy Club.
Comedy, by and large, is a mentorship industry, as Tacoma comedian Susan Jones says. She should know. She’s Rogers’ mentor.
“My mom and her were good friends,” Rogers says, noting that he’s known Jones since he was 15. “So when she was starting comedy, I was a teenager and I got to see her start out.” When he told her he was doing comedy, she gave him a list of comedians in the area who would be interested in booking shows at Kitsap venues, which helped him start producing shows.
Jones started her career broadcasting as a club DJ, before she got into the now-defunct Crossroads Comedy Club working as a host on the weekends. She ended up managing the club full-time for years, she says.
Jones says one of the first pieces of advice she gives to new comedians is to be a joke teller, not a joke asker. “Confidence is 95 percent of it,” she says.
Jones notes that although comedy is an art or a craft, there’s a commercial aspect to it — if comedians want to put food on the table and pay the bills, they have to sell themselves. But, even so, it’s a rewarding career if it’s what you love to do.
“I make people laugh for a living,” she says. “That’s just a stupid thing to say. I can’t believe they pay us to do this shit.”
Rogers credits Jones with teaching him the importance of crafting good jokes, rather than merely shocking ones.
“She’ll watch me and teach me what I’m doing wrong or what I could be doing better,” Rogers mused. “As far as my maturing in comedy, it’s been a slower process because I’m one of the typical comedians that, when I started, I just talked about dirty jokes, lots of sex, lots of stuff like that. And my mentor, she pretty much taught me that you don’t have to get rid of the dirty jokes altogether. You just have to replace the bad words with words that imply that word.”
Although different audiences appreciate different kinds of jokes, in general, audiences appreciate the craft of comedy more than pure vulgarity, Rogers says.
“It’s far more demanding to be creative and craft (jokes), and I think that’s why the turnover rate for comedians is so high, that they’ll try it out for a couple years but then they’ll just quit, because it’s not until two to three years into it, at times, that you realize how difficult it really is to maintain. And four years into it, I still feel like I’m six years away from actually doing good enough comedy to get noticed in Seattle and Tacoma and the rest of the state.”
Larsen says one of his early mentors was comedian George Miller — a regular on the late night talk show circuit — who came out of Seattle.
“Very early on, he picked me up, and was really, really cool to me, and introduced me to an amazing amount of people,” Larsen recalled. Miller was unique among comics, Larsen says, in that he never craved more time on the mic — he always wanted less time so others could have a chance in the spotlight.
It’s never too early for comedians to begin passing on the knowledge they’ve gained. Pickering noted that although he’s still learning his craft, he has opportunities to support budding comedians just getting turned on to the Kitsap comedy scene.
“I just try to be nice to these guys coming in,” he says. “We had another comedian that moved to California last year — Kevin Wendell. He was really outgoing and open and I just try to do that whenever I see a new guy; just try to shake his hand and say, ‘Hey, welcome,’ and help him feel at home.”
Rogers, also, has had opportunities to bestow his knowledge to new comedians.
“Because I have been doing it longer, I’m usually older than most of the new comedians in this area,” Rogers says. “I tell them all the time, I say, ‘Hey, I’m not trying to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about. I’m no pro, but I’m going to pass you down knowledge that’s been passed on to me by my mentor, that’s been passed down to her from her mentor, over the last 50 years.
“It’s all been knowledge and the craft that’s been passed down from comedian to comedian,” he adds. “Not all comedians are willing to set aside the time to try to mentor or help others, but I’m absolutely all about it.”
Kitsap’s Comedy Boom
Rogers’ first show was in his backyard. He held a barbecue, bought a couple kegs, and invited some friends to come out and support him. Then, he started reaching out to local bar owners to see if any were interested in hosting shows. After about a year, he started the Comedy in Kitsap Facebook and Twitter profiles, realizing he needed to start marketing to people outside of his circle of friends.
“My goal when I started the (Comedy in Kitsap) page was not only to announce my shows, but announce any comedy that’s going on in the area,” Rogers says. “I’m not biased. I don’t see other people that produce comedy as competition, because I feel like I view these things for the sake of comedy. I think that the more comedy we have, the better.”
While comedy has long had a presence in Kitsap, it seems like comedy has seen a resurgence. And while in larger cities, it’s probably possible to see a comedy show on any day of the week, it seems like Kitsap County is getting more than its fair share of comedy shows for a county its size. In addition to the variety of venues where Rogers and Larsen put on shows, the Admiral Theater and Suquamish Clearwater Casino are other reliable places to find comedians (with Larsen booking shows at the latter).
Rogers says it seems to him the supply of comedy ebbs and flows with the economy.
“I think Bremerton, they’ve done a lot downtown to revamp this area and to make it more entertainment-friendly, whether it be music or comedy,” he says. “But I believe that right now we’re just in an up time where the economy’s OK here in Bremerton, and I think if you can just plug away with comedy here and people show up, that’s great. I think that the Admiral and these other casinos, they’ve been doing comedy awhile, but they have been producing more shows (lately) over a shorter period of time.”
Larsen agrees that comedy is in the midst of another boom.
“Right now in Seattle, I think you could do at least three shows a night every night of the week in Seattle,” he says. “Some nights you could do five shows on a Tuesday. So there’s a plethora of work [for comedians] right now.”
But, like with all things in Seattle, the overflow spills out into surrounding areas, including Kitsap County.
“Just right here, in our own back yard … I can’t keep up with it,” he says.
One of the nice things about Kitsap is that there’s opportunities for different levels, Larsen says. When he books comedy acts at the Clearwater Casino, they “give me the availability and the budget that I’m able to fly guys from Last Comic Standing, the guys from HBO, that kind of stuff,” he says.
Seattle comedians that Larsen brings to intimate Kitsap venues like the Cloverleaf or McCormick Woods are normally out playing huge theaters, he says. “You look at their tour schedules, they play some pretty small places for me and that comes from years and years of relationships and stuff,” he says. “And boy do they have fun in those rooms, you know? And the people are like, ‘Wow. We saw an unbelievable show.’”
The bottom line, Larsen says, is that if people want to keep having something to do, they need to show up.
“There’s live entertainment going on in your backyard,” he says. “You don’t have to go to Tacoma or Seattle. We’re bringing it here for you.”
Past and Future
Earlier in his career, Larsen took his dad with him while he was performing. They would send audio cassette tapes back home to his mom, who has since passed away from cancer.
Larsen remembers playing at the George Burns Theater in Michigan.
“It’s one of these classic venues that I can’t believe that they tore down,” he says. “But backstage was this wall about three feet by about 80 or 100 feet, and there’s autographs from Smothers Brothers, Milton Berle — anybody and everybody that’s even been in comedy had signed the wall. And I’m looking at that going, ‘Wow.’”
Larsen came in on Wednesday night, and the manager told him that if he performed well on Saturday, he could sign the wall.
“I’m thinking, ‘There’s Jerry Lewis, there’s — my God. There’s just everybody.’ And so with dad next to me, Saturday night comes up and [the manager] has got this box. And inside is one of those big sharpies. And he goes, ‘We really enjoyed you and we’d like you to sign the wall.’ In front of dad. Mine was right up there next to Howie Mandell.”
After his mother passed away, Larsen’s dad sent him one of the audio tapes they’d sent her. Larsen wasn’t sure why his dad was so insistent that he listen to the tape — after all, he says, they’d been together when they recorded the tape and sent it back home. Nevertheless, he entertained his father.
“It was him, later that night, on the flip side of the tape and he goes … ‘These people like our kid. I know we’re both kind of scared about this stuff, but they like him,'” Larsen recalls. “That’s my goal, you know what I mean? Approval from parents and that kind of stuff. To have that confidence with me at all times makes it easier to get over whatever. The rest of it doesn’t matter … The highs and lows of a career, none of it matters. Mom and dad are proud. That’s as good as it gets, man. So yeah: I’ve been blessed in this career.”
While Larsen has had the chance to travel across the country doing comedy, Rogers is still looking forward to the future, eyeing a career that may someday take him across the country telling jokes.
“I’ve already decided that I’m going to be doing comedy for the rest of my life,” he says. Rogers’ goal is that by the time his youngest son, who is 9, graduates from high school, he will be able to hit the road.
“I think that if I have 10 more years to perfect that craft, I think that will be plenty of time to be good enough,” he says. “As far as producing and performing at the same time, it can be a little demanding at times, because when you put energy and time into producing, that’s energy and time that’s being almost taken away from writing and improving yourself, even though I’m bringing more time to myself out here. If I were to focus just on my own comedy, I might be able to get out from time to time, take the boat over to Seattle and get over to an open mic, stuff like that.”
Until then, Rogers benefits from living in a city and a county where comedy is thriving. For that matter, so do Larsen, Pickering, and other comedians who call Kitsap County home. Kitsap’s comedy scene is more than just a scene. It’s a community. A family. And anyone who has a funny bone can benefit.
“The whole comedy scene is really building here in Bremerton,” Pickering says. “Everybody’s welcome if anybody wants to come in and tell jokes.”
UPCOMING COMEDY SHOWS:
- Comedy in Kitsap – Comedy Showcase. 7 p.m. tonight, May 19, at Dog Days Brewing, 260 4th St., Bremerton. $5 cover.
- Comedy in Kitsap Comedy Crawl, 7 p.m. June 10. Starts at Dog Days Brewing, ends at LoveCraft Brewing, 275 5th St., No. 101, Bremerton.
- Comedy in Kitsap presents Sam Miller. 9 p.m. June 24 at Slaughter County Brewing, 1307 Bay St., Port Orchard.
- Leif Skyving. 7 p.m. May 23 at Clearwater Suquamish Casino, 15347 Suquamish Way NE, Suquamish. Free admission. 21+
- Dean Oleson. 7 p.m. June 13 at Clearwater Suquamish Casino, 15347 Suquamish Way NE, Suquamish. Free admission. 21+.
Disclosure: Joseph Rogers, one of the comedians featured in this story, is in a relationship with reporter Steven Wyble’s cousin. (Although he didn’t realize that when he first reached out to Rogers for the story. Small world!)
Featured Photos: Cris Larsen, left, and Joseph Rogers, right, are integral parts of Kitsap County’s burgeoning comedy scene. (Steven Wyble / Kitsap Scene).