And when the lights come on, we'll start the show."
Lights out. The last words said in Chris Trew and Tami Nelson's introduction give the crowd at the Shadowbox Theatre about two seconds to wipe the grin off their faces. Lights on.
In the next half hour, Trew and Nelson become an exhausted toddler and his surrogate maternal figure and zoo tour guide; the boy's runaway father and a tender-but-willing airport employee and TSA agent; a patient wife and her not-so-patient husband waiting for the zoo tour; and several other peripheral characters in a totally improvised show. There was laughter throughout. At the end, the audience explodes with applause.
It's a show the couple has performed, always differently, since 2005, when the New Orleans duo moved to Austin, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina. Over the next few years, Nelson and Trew amassed a following, opened a comedy theater, trained students — and now have returned to New Orleans to do the same thing. The theater here, like the Austin original, is called The New Movement (TNM), and it will open as a full-time New Orleans improv school and comedy theater in the Faubourg Marigny March 3.
"We've been talking a pretty big game for the past year. 'We're going to move to New Orleans and open a comedy theater,'" Trew says before the show. Trew is all beard. His thick-rimmed glasses sit above it. "All of a sudden it worked. We have a building."
"Chris, you've been talking a big game the past six years," Nelson says. Trew smiles.
Since the couple's return to New Orleans last year, Trew has produced several shows, videos, events and a four-night comedy festival, November's Hell Yes Fest, which had packed houses at all of its 10 shows. He continues to campaign to be the elected owner of the New Orleans Hornets, he's hosted Air Sex competitions (think air guitar, but with screwing), and he's dropped in at events to perform — then promote the hell out of the theater. It worked in Austin and Houston and Dallas — TNM is now the nucleus for comedy in all three cities. New Orleans is next.
Comedy never took root in New Orleans the way it did in "the big three": New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, cities where theaters like Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), The Second City, The Groundlings and iO Improv have enormous followings and sold-out nightly events. Many of their graduates and performers have gone on to Saturday Night Live, the holy grail for many comics.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has had open-mic shows with middling to little followings, scattered improv, stand-up and sketch performances, and the occasional touring comedian stuck with a shitty audience. Michael Ian Black's 2006 appearance at the House of Blues was so awful he put it on his album I Am a Wonderful Man; track 4 is titled "New Orleans": "I know they've been through a tragedy in New Orleans. I'm aware of that," Black says. "But victims can be f—ing assholes."
"New Orleans doesn't strike me as a comedy town," says Black, who was in the city last week promoting HGTV's House Hunters. Black, a member of definitive sketch groups The State and Stella, dunks a pyramid-shaped teabag into a mug. "I guess because it's so focused on music. You don't really hear much about comedy in New Orleans. Comedy audiences (here), in my recollection, are more like music audiences. They're rowdy, yelling at you."
He is, of course, referencing his 2006 show. But he doesn't hold it against New Orleans, which he says is not an L.A. or a New York — and he says it should not aspire to be.
"The goal should be to create its own homegrown comedy scene the way cities develop their own music scenes," Black says. "Austin certainly has a great comedy scene. Most cities do. And it becomes self-regenerating. People go through the system, they move through the system, and if they have the ambition to do it professionally for their lives, they'll leave. Then people will come in, and it sustains itself."
Indeed, in years past, New Orleans comedians have moved elsewhere — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — to find an audience.
New Orleans native Sean Patton moved to New York in 2006. He recently appeared in the stand-up comic spotlight on both Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Conan, and just finished filming a pilot with Marc Maron. Patton cut his teeth at New Orleans open-mic nights with stand-up comics Seth Cockfield (who moved to Austin) and Neal Stastny (who moved to New York). Before that, they hosted a popular monthly Comedy Invasion show at Carrollton Station and packed former Warehouse District coffee house True Brew for its weekly open mic.
"Our first few years, those were our rock star nights," Patton says on the phone from New York, just before a show at Upright Citizens Brigade with comedians Thomas Lennon and Todd Glass. "We promoted, we packed the place. We were so new to it, but good at it. ... There were maybe 25 or 30 comics (in New Orleans), and maybe 10 of us were good, because we cared. The rest did it as a hobby."
Patton also performed with the local improv group God's Been Drinking, which performed with Nelson and Trew's early improv group ColdTowne. But Patton says he had to leave New Orleans to advance his career.
"I wanted more. I knew there had to be more out there," he says. "Things were good, but I had a feeling, if I wanted to really do this, I had to put myself to the test. There's got to be more to this."
Another local improv group, Stupid Time Machine, featuring Derek Dupuy, C.J. Hunt and Mike Spara, formed in 2009. "The scene was really patchwork at the time," says Dupuy, who is at The Den at The Howlin' Wolf. The group sits in the bare-walled space after one of its weekly Tuesday night improv shows at the club. "It's grown so much — (there were) a handful of stand-ups who I would say were good, but you didn't have many stand-up shows going on," Dupuy says. "At the time, stand-up people didn't like the improvisers, improvisers didn't necessarily do stand-up, and nobody was doing sketch."
Stand-up comics Scotland Green and Cassidy Henehan host Carrollton Station's Wednesday open-mic night. Hosts Bill Dykes and Dane Faucheux used to preside over it at Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Grill until 2008. It was at True Brew before that. Henehan first stepped up to the mic in 2002 — he moved to New York and returned to New Orleans in 2010.
Henehan and Green have been on the homegrown beat together since 2009, when they started a weekly comedy showcase at Lost Love Lounge — a low-fi, well-curated performance focused on quality, Henehan says, not a "glossy flyer." The duo's favorite words — quality and consistency — are essential, he says. Zach Galifianakis dropped in Carrollton Station recently to run 10 minutes of new material, but it wasn't a fluke.
"It might seem like, 'Oh, they got lucky, Scot's show got this little boost from the guy being there,' but the reason the guy was there was because we're always here Wednesdays," Henehan says. "Our name is on the line."
Besides performing stand-up, Faucheux also joined Stupid Time Machine's sketch group after watching its former regular gig at La Nuit Comedy Theater on Freret Street. Many stand-ups and groups — Trew, Patton, Stupid Time Machine — left that theater to perform elsewhere. Faucheux now performs on all sides of the aisles — at festivals, as a headliner, on the road in hostile venues with bitter road comics, in local casinos, with TNM's roster, and as a host for TNM's Megaphone Open Mic, a twice-monthly show inside a shotgun house.
"I love the way I get to do it, kind of on my own terms," he says. "I've always wanted New Orleans to become a comedy city, and I think it's on its way, as opposed to a place where people can start out and move away. ... In the last six years, Austin has blown up, and its comedy scene has become huge, kind of an underground movement. Now New Orleans is the next city to do that."
The following week, Green and Henehan drink from frosted schooner glasses inside Carrollton Station while the open mic's signup sheet fills with returning comics and some first-timers.
"From when I started in 2006, it's all been setting the groundwork for this to be a better comedy town than it was," Green says. "As soon as (Trew) got back, he was just like, working. Doing it. Booking."
Trew wants to keep comics here and prove that moving to the "big three" doesn't, and shouldn't, have to be a necessity.
"If someone from the New Orleans comedy scene leaves, part of me feels like I didn't do my job," he says. "I feel like our responsibility is to build a badass thing here."
TNM's new home is the first floor of an art deco building at 1919 Burgundy St. Inside, Trew instructs his "level five" charges in one of their last classes before graduation, which is just a few weeks away. A toilet flush upstairs resonates in the theater space and everyone giggles — something to fix before the doors open the following month. The six students went through all levels of TNM's eight-week classes, beginning at "level one" last year. By the time the theater opens, the students will be the first alumni of TNM's New Orleans theater.
During his own school days, Trew produced a sketch show at LSU on Tiger TV and formed the online sketch group studio8 (named after his dorm room). He met Nelson in New Orleans after graduation. Later he went to Chicago to study at iO Improv and Second City and formed the improv group ColdTowne in New Orleans, which turned into ColdTowne in Austin when the group moved there in the wake of Katrina. When the group split, Nelson and Trew set off to open their own theater.
"The thing Chris and I wanted to do and eventually did do, our vision never strayed, we wanted to teach a unique form of improv," Nelson says. "Everyone else in Austin and elsewhere was teaching a watered-down version of what they learned at (iO Improv), UCB or Second City or whatever, and borrowing directly from syllabi they learned in Chicago, L.A. or New York. So when we opened The New Movement, we sat down like, 'What do we like about improv, what do we like about how we do improv, what do we like about how we teach improv, and let's try and articulate that in a syllabus.' And we came up with a really good syllabus, and we're super proud of it. We know, because we've seen the results of it. ... Convincing everyone in Austin what we were doing was unique, it did have a specific voice, it will yield a different kind of product — that was challenging."
It worked. The Austin theater took off. While Nelson and Trew groomed their students to take over TNM theaters elsewhere in Texas, they tapped Stupid Time Machine to prepare New Orleans for TNM's arrival. Along with Grace Blakeman, who also performs with Stupid Time Machine and sketch group Personality Plus, the group members now are TNM teachers.
"We've all been like, 'Should we go to Chicago?,'" Blakeman says. "When Chris and Tami had this idea, we thought, well, we can make what they have down here."
Blakeman says TNM can change that metric of success: instead of going to the jungle elsewhere, comics can "have fun and be really good."
"Let's make this the type of theater and scene that makes us not want to go to Chicago, because there's something so incredible happening here," Hunt says. "If we can make that, we're the ones starting this thing, we're the ones who wanted it in the first place — where else would we go from this?"
The theater already has more than a dozen graduates from its New Orleans camp, and more than 100 total from its Texas schools. Its opening month schedule features four performances from stand-ups Sean Patton and Kyle Kinane and almost nightly performances from its improv teams. Its alumni are touring the country, and TNM now has more locations than its "rival" theaters; TNM isn't competing against other venues in New Orleans, but other cities in the U.S., to attract the next crop of up-and-coming comic performers — a first for a city without a national comedy reputation.
"We have a chance to build a legacy in a city of such a badass section of America that we get to show people, 'Come to New Orleans, it's a place to celebrate,'" says Stupid Time Machine's Spara. "The conversations happen multiple times with people in established comedy scenes in the other big three, where it's like, 'God, I really like New Orleans, and you guys are really doing something. There's a scene now.' I think you're going to see that gaining momentum big time."
The groundwork from die-hard local comics and TNM's rapid pace and timing mesh nicely with the city's entertainment "comeback" — not only are touring music acts filling up concert calendars, touring stand-up comics are stepping on stages where formerly comedians were absent. Paul F. Tompkins and Louis C.K. filled venues in 2010 and 2011, respectively, while bigger stages accommodated blockbuster headline monsters like Chris Tucker and Sinbad. More recently, Leon Blanda, who hosts a showcase at House of Blues on Thursdays, put his flyer in the hands of SNL alum Darrell Hammond, who now makes regular appearances at the show — which is free.
Stupid Time Machine sold out recent appearances at Chicago's and San Francisco's Sketch Fests and was featured on the website FunnyOrDie.com. And at home, La Nuit Comedy Theater continues to host weekly comedy performances, from improv to standup — Neil Hamburger recently appeared, and the theater hosted dozens others at a February festival. TNM produced Hell Yes Fest, which drew national comic performers and exposed local comedians to larger audiences. TNM students already are producing new shows, like A Handsome, featuring TNM students Cyrus Cooper, Drew Platt and Addy Najera (who all perform stand-up, too).
"It's got a way more thriving scene than anything we had back then," Patton says. "There's more comics, they're funnier comics, and they're younger, too."
Standing outside Carrollton Station, Faucheux points to its door. "This has been a staple for stand-ups in this city," he says. "It's ridiculous that an open-mic [night] even has an audience. Open mics around the country generally do not. ... I haven't seen that since I started comedy. It has a sense of community really backing it."
That C-Word — not comedy, and not the other four-letter one, but "community" — is TNM's most-used word. Nelson and Trew use it at least a dozen times in 30 minutes. Not only are they actively defying the conventions of 30-year-old improv doctrines, they're rejecting the sausage-factory, assembly-line "graduations" of its students. Nelson and Trew begin most shows by asking the audience to "sound like a million people" for whoever's next, whether it's the guest headliner or a level one class with its first graduation recital. Everyone at every show is invited to the after-party.
"This is a community about people who give a shit about doing something important, even if it's just in their personal circumference," Nelson says. "They want to do something that's important. A lot of that translates into how to behave in the world, a lot of it will translate into how you behave yourself."
"My dream scenario is not to be Louis C.K. or Will Ferrell or someone famous on SNL right now," Trew says. "Best-case scenario for me is we help hundreds of people fulfill their comedy dreams, that we have a really strong following in the cities we give the most shit about, I get to sit in the lower bowl for the Hornets games all the time, and we get to eat out whenever we want.
"We're not obsessed with 'What's the next thing that has to get out of here to be in movies?' We can do all that here."