ive to eight years on the road before a comic is booked to headline a show.
The Loony Bin has been hosting open-mic events every Wednesday night since opening its doors more than six years ago, said club owner Larry Marks.
"For me, the open mics are a great way to capture local talent. I've seen plenty of guys that started as open micers that went on to be major stars," he said. "That's why I don't understand some clubs that don't provide the venue for new comic talent because it's always out there."
The Loony Bin, 8503 N. Rockwell, doesn't have any homegrown talent currently headlining, but it does have a roster of about 20 local comics who got their start as open micers and emcees given a small set before headliners. A few of those comics have moved up to club features "? small stand-up sets scheduled before the headliner takes the stage. In addition to the open-mic nights, The Loony Bin also holds a comedy contest about twice a year to encourage local talent with cash prizes and paid emcee opportunities.
The seeds of the independent comedy scene were planted when a former local comic, Seth Joseph, who now lives and performs in New York, banded with a number of other aspiring local comedians to start their own open-mic event at Othello's in Norman. Joseph and the other comedians wanted to give performers 10-15 minutes of stage time, as opposed to the four minutes allotted at The Loony Bin.
The Othello's open mic was booked for Tuesday nights, so audiences didn't have to choose between shows there and Loony Bin shows scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays.
"That was the first time the comic community came together and said, 'We need more time. We need a place where we can go and work on new material,'" Porter said.
The open mic at Othello's attracted Joseph, Porter and a group of comics including Leah Kayajanian, Spencer Hicks, Anthony Cavazos, James Nghiem and Derek Smith, who soon started writing and performing sketch comedy together under the moniker Norman Comedy. After developing and refining their material and growing an audience, the group organized a showcase of local comedians at Stage Center and filled more than 400 seats.
It wasn't just time constraints that drove comics to establish more opportunities outside of the club scene. Creative choices regarding content and their performance style were also a big factor.
"People like me don't feel at home in the comedy clubs, because we do comedy that is outside the bounds of what the audience can understand or can accept," said Kayajanian, of Norman. "Most of my stuff is written for a college crowd, even though I hate saying that, because it sounds a little pretentious."
After winning a comedy competition judged by The Loony Bin owners a few years ago, she turned in some emcee work at the club, but said she often butted heads because of her material.
"Leah is an interesting girl to watch. She kind of does her own stuff," said Marks. "She a little edgier, but I think she's got some real talent.
Marks said he welcomes comics who tackle the controversial, but said vulgarity often closes doors and audience ears.
"We encourage people to stay pretty clean in everything they do, because it will have more universal appeal. Too many of the wrong four-letter words doesn't get you anywhere," he said. "There's a place for every kind of comedy. There are a lot of comedy clubs. But if someone just refuses to change and I don't think I have an audience for it, they're not going to work for me."
Eventually, Porter, Hicks and Smith amicably left the Norman scene and joined up with local filmmaker Dan O'Donoghue to create 796 Entertainment. Initially, the group's main focus was developing multimedia content for the Internet, but eventually turned its attention to establishing a regular, ongoing showcase, "Mondays Don't Suck" at the the 51st Street Speakeasy, 1114 N.W. 51st, a year ago.
"When we started, it was pretty much like a standard comedy show that you'd see at a club in terms of format, but we've tried to let evolve and try new things," Porter said. "Some things worked. Some things didn't."
The current format, which stages 8:30 p.m. Mondays, is more of a variety show, which features stand-ups, sketches, original videos and a game show based around guessing TV theme songs. Porter, Hicks, or Smith usually host the show, which features keyboard player Vinnie Hogan, who backs the comics with side-stage musical embellishments.
In addition to the unprecedented time onstage "? equal to that which headliners at The Loony Bin enjoy "? local comics get paid to perform.
"It's the thing I'm most proud of, that we have helped give the handful of stand-up comics in our area a place to practice their craft and a way to get paid for it without having to go to open mics for years," Hicks said.
"We're not completely selfless, either," added O'Donoghue. "The show is a great opportunity to get our shorts out there."
In addition the ongoing open mic at Othello's in Norman, comic James Nghiem has organized his fifth showcase at The Opolis, which stages 9 p.m. Friday.
Nghiem said that he's trying to balance Friday's lineup between established and newer local comics, but will likely feature a reunion of the original Norman Comedy group, along with some a few new faces.
Kayajanian said that the biggest challenges facing the emerging metro comedy scene is keeping talent from leaving, finding more comedy venues and building and maintaining a strong local audience.
"There are some people performing at the club that have been doing the same act for 20 years," she said. "Our comedy won't survive in the clubs."
Hicks added that the same barriers that prevent some from taking the stage only motivate the most dedicated.
"Since we don't live in a state that has a lot of opportunity to get onstage, the comics that do have a drive," he said. "They are not getting on stage as a dare or because their coworkers think they are funny. They are there because they know they are funny and love the feeling of making other people laugh." "?Eric Webb