"Is that ahi tuna?"
"No. It's a-ha tuna. This is a comedy interview."
So went a not-atypical exchange during my recent conversation with area comedians George Strader, Patrick Adamson, and Andrew King. (It was George who asked about the tuna and Patrick who ordered it. If you were wondering, Andrew had a burger.) But while the jokes and laughs tended to come fast and furious during our chat, there was one thing this trio was dead-serious about: The Quad Cities' comedy scene has, since the beginning of this decade, been enjoying a pretty dramatic renaissance. A pretty inspiring one, too.
For those who follow area comedy, the names of these three gentlemen (cue: "Who's a gentleman?!?") are hardly unfamiliar. The 36-year old Adamson, along with his father Jeff, co-owns the ComedySportz Quad Cities affiliate, which debuted in 1990. Thirty-four-year-old Strader is the founder of the improvisational-comedy ensemble The Blacklist, which originated in 2010 and now performs in Davenport's Backroom Comedy Theater. Twenty-four-year-old King has, for two years, hosted stand-up comics in the Bix Beiderbomb: Comedy Invitational every Thursday night at Boozie's Bar & Grille in Davenport.
But those simplified descriptions don't suggest just how active in local comedy these guys truly are, nor do they hint at the rather staggering variety - particularly in recent years - of their endeavors.
In addition to its long-running, family-friendly, short-form improv shows at Rock Island's Establishment, ComedySportz recently added uncensored long-form improv and sketch comedy to the mix in the form of the Studio Series, upping the company's total to four performances weekly (not including the roughly 200 gigs performed annually by the group's touring ensemble Guys in Ties). Adamson's organization is also set to host the June 10 through 13 ComedySportz World Championships, featuring 250 comedians from 24 cities throughout the United States and England.
The Blacklist, which also performs two shows each on Fridays and Saturdays, produces specially themed "bar-prov" - which Strader describes as "an improv-comedy show performed in front of the rowdiest people in the world" - while also hosting occasional touring comedians and a weekly open-mic night.
Beyond his regular engagement at Boozie's, where he both hosts and performs original stand-up comedy, King gets to act as host in two live, monthly talk shows that he originated: Rozz-Tox's Rozz-Talks, and the new The After Hour at the Circa '21 Speakeasy.
And as Adamson, Strader, and King would quickly admit, there's so much more in terms of area comedy: the touring comedians of Moline's The Venue; The Circumstantial Comedy show at the Village of East Davenport's BREW; Bottom's Up Quad City Burlesque; Sean Leary's Rock City Live; Joshua Kahn's and Wayne Lyter's Stand Up Face Off; the Circa '21 Speakeasy's Laugh Hard and #soblessed Comedy tours; Augustana College's Electric Theatre Unplugged ... .
But squeezing everyone responsible for the recent uptick in local options into one restaurant booth was gonna be impossible. Consequently, what follows are a few of Adamson's, Strader's, and King's thoughts on comedy and, specifically, the recent area-comedy blitzkrieg - what's happening, why it's happening, and why it's not going away any time soon.
Gotta Be Different Somehow
Adamson: It doesn't feel like what's going on in comedy is new, because I've always been entrenched in it, you know? This is 18 years I'm running on now, doing shows every weekend. But having options beyond [former area venues] Penguin's or the Funny Bone is new, because there never were any other options. It was either you went to ComedySportz or you went to the stand-up clubs.
King: I only started in 2009, doing the open mic once a month at Penguin's for a while before it shut down, but yeah, it was stand-up or improv.
Adamson: And even then, our improv option was ComedySportz, which is a formatted show that has been prescribed and handed down by a trade association. You know, we're one of 25 cities that perform ComedySportz. So that path was predicated. But now, at the Establishment, we have 12 other shows that we're doing beyond ComedySportz. So in that way, it does feel new, because we now have new options, and that's good for everybody - players and audiences.
Strader: Under Patrick's leadership at the Establishment, there's been a great amount of diversification there. And I really feel like that's what we're seeing right now throughout the Quad Cities. Not just a diversification in the venues, but in the way we deliver things. Andrew's crafted a really unique talk show. The Studio Series offers a wide variety of different types of improv and stand-up.
King: One of the things I like about the Studio Series is that it gives Patrick's performers a chance to come up with an idea and produce something. That's a skill set that's actually lacking in a lot of performers in this area. Their ability to produce.
Strader: And with the Blacklist, right off the bat we focused solely on one niche: adults. We're bar-prov. Tried-and-true bar-prov. There was no way in hell we were ever gonna be able to compete with ComedySportz, nor would I want to. That's sacred in the Quad Cities. That's where a lot of guys like me got our start, you know? If it wasn't for ComedySportz, I never would've found my improv passion. I probably would've stuck with wrestling and show choir.
King: At the same time.
Adamson: Hey, they both use robes, so why not?
Strader: But we've never wanted to pursue family comedy. The family audience will always have a home with ComedySportz.
Adamson: Well, while we do have families at Sportz, we also have bachelorette parties, we have bachelor parties, we get college kids, we get church groups ... . We have a very weird melting pot of an audience. And while ComedySportz is "rated 'E' for everyone," it's not just "the kids' show."
Strader: No, of course not.
Adamson: It's a show that's funny without being offensive. That's really the goal. Which is why seeing that there was interest in the area for uncensored comedy was a great opportunity for our performers to generate new formats and ideas, and not have that parameter put on them - that they had to have a show with no offensive qualities.
King: Another thing about these new formats, at least in my experience, is that they're often bred out of necessity. 'Cause it's really hard to get people to come out just to see a stand-up show.
Strader: Oh yeah.
King: And that's a shame because that's my main bag - that's what I love to do. I wish I could just do stand-up. But I can't. I can't get people to come out to see stand-up. It's too hard to market. Because none of us have names. And so it's easier to present a show that has a theme ... . Well, not a theme necessarily, but it's gotta be different somehow. That's why I started the talk shows. "People know what this is." It's not going to be an extremely hard sell, at least in explaining it.
Adamson: What's cool as hell about what's happening in the Quad Cities, but what's also a difficulty, is that we're all local comedians. I mean, every person on my staff, every person on George's staff, everyone who appears at Andrew's open mics and on the talk shows - they're all local talent, and there's a lot of local talent. But then someone will say to you, "Oh, you guys do comedy? Cool! Who's come through lately?" They want to hear, "Well, we resurrected George Carlin and he came back and did our venue ... ."
Strader: I run an advertising company, so I study markets. And in the Quad Cities, we have a median household income of about 42 grand a year in a two-income household. And this market's entertainment dollar is primarily spent on cable television. There's only a limited amount of dollars to be spent on live entertainment, but most of it's being swallowed up by cable. So I think we suffer from a perception that people are only funny, or only relevant, if they've appeared on cable. It's in markets like Chicago and New York and L.A. that you realize that people aren't necessarily looking for the big name; they're looking for the next big name.
Tons of Work to Do
Adamson: Somebody bought me coffee in Galesburg once because they recognized me from ComedySportz. I knew I had arrived when somebody bought me coffee in Galesburg.
King: I get spotted on occasion. People will say, "Hey! You're that one guy!"
Strader: But if you live in the Quad Cities, and you're a "local talent" with quote marks, and you're doing this for fame and fortune, you're doing it for all the wrong reasons.
King: Well, I wasn't alive in the '80s, but - .
Strader: Oh God!
Adamson: I had the same reaction!
King: - but I do know there had been [televised] local shows. Like we used to have Live on Tape. And people seemed to really care about local people doing things. So one thing I love about the Rozz-Talks and The After Hour is building the idea that there are local celebrities. I'm sitting down with these people for a reason. These are people that you should recognize.
Adamson: There's always been this idea that if you're a local person who's done well, you leave. You get out of here.
Strader: And I think that's what guys like us are fighting to change. Hopefully, we're helping to inspire people to take the reins and be in control of their destiny and realize that the Quad Cities is this vast metropolis of opportunity. My vision for the Quad Cities in the next five years is that this will be such a thriving theatre, arts, comedy, and music market, we'll be compared to Austin, Texas.
King: I was in Chicago for six months, but I wanted to move back because I could see so much was starting to happen in the Quad Cities. It was like, "I have to be a part of that - a part of the growth."
Adamson: From what anybody ever told me growing up, I would never be able to have a full-time job and sustain my family doing comedy in the Quad Cities. But there's opportunity here because there isn't a large footprint. There isn't a machine of a system like Second City and iO and the Groundlings and the UCB - that's not here. So if you're smart enough to follow those opportunities, then there's tons of work to do. I mean, between our traveling troupe Guys in Ties and our four shows a weekend at the theatre, ComedySportz did 408 shows last year. People are surprised to hear that - that there's that much opportunity in the little ol' Quad Cities.
Strader: That's such a valid point. Patrick and I can remember when we would do one show every Friday and Saturday. Now, he's doing four shows, I'm doing four shows, Andrew's doing shows, there are at least five different venues where you can see a comedy-themed show ... . And that's not to mention comedy in theatre, musicals ... . So what's happening here is not just an expansion of scene, but an expansion of ambition. When I met him four or five years ago, Andrew and a buddy had done one showcase together, and it was a huge success ... .
King: I remember that.
Strader: And they were thirsty and hungry for more opportunity, and I looked at him and said, "Let's make it happen." I'd never seen them before, but I want to work with people with the ambition and the want to succeed. And there are so many of them out there. I mean, I have 28 people on my roster now, and I'm just now adding another 18. And I'm getting calls from aspiring stand-up comedians in Des Moines, in Cedar Rapids, who want to come in and open for my Blacklist shows.
Adamson: We audition every year, and the numbers at the auditions have always been pretty consistent. We've always had about 30, 35 people that come out every year. Some of those faces are repeats, but there always seem to be new people. Right now, I have 34 performers. Forty-six with staff, but 34 performers.
King: For me, what usually happens is I have some heavy-hitters for a while, and then they want to move away, which is a shame. They're under the impression that it's better to move to a bigger market - which I don't feel is the case, but it can be for some people. I think you can either develop in front of live audience members here or you can develop in front of 10 comics and a bunch of Chicagoans staring at their notebooks. You just really really have to gauge what's most important in your stage of development.
Adamson: What gets me really excited about working with somebody is when they have that charisma - that reason you want to watch and want to listen. An audience can believe someone is funny before they even do anything based on confidence and the way he or she looks, acts, carries themselves ... . If they really enjoy what they do, and they can make it look easy, that's when I want to come back and see that person again.
King: I look for perspective, which ties in with the idea of presence. A good comedian is a unique comedian. Because anybody can write a joke about "x" topic. But if you can take an old topic and somehow make it new and funny, that's an achievement all in itself. Even if you don't have your delivery figured out, if you're able to come up with a personal idea, you're never gonna run out of content. Stage presence and "personality" can be modified or learned.
Strader: When I have Blacklist auditions, it's difficult for me to relay to a lot of incoming performers that the word "f---" isn't funny just because it's delivered any which way. That exploring the concept of something hilarious is much more difficult than exploiting the obvious joke. And the obvious joke to a lot of people is to go raunchy right off the bat.
King: I make an effort to not go blue. I mean, sometimes it's too good to pass up, but if you conserve it, it impacts more. Because then it means something. Otherwise you can become desensitized to it.
Strader: A great comedian who can speak the truth, shine a spotlight on the ironies of humanity, and do it with a unique delivery has a better chance of being successful than anybody who can tell a great dick or fart joke. I say to all those guys auditioning that I had to learn to perform completely clean before I could ever understand how to properly play blue. "You think you're good? Jump into ComedySportz and try to do a 45-minute show completely clean if you think you're that good."
Adamson: Honestly, I feel it's more freeing to have to be clean because then I have a challenge. Then I'm more free to explore and create. And I don't mean to sound like a pompous ass - .
King: It's okay. You are.
Adamson: Thank you. But I feel we have to work twice as hard at the family-friendly, "rated 'E' for everybody" ComedySportz show - .
Adamson: - than we ever have to work at 9:30 when we can just say anything. I mean, sometimes in a moment of panic you'll be like, "I need a quick grab and I don't have anything! I'll just drop a dick joke 'cause I know it's there!" But it's always the low-hanging fruit. And I agree that you can't rip that Band-Aid off right at the beginning. If you start your show with the most dirty, offensive one-liner, then that's the bar. And everything after that either doesn't have the effect you want it to, or requires so much energy to maintain that you just want to take a shower at the end of the show. Like, "I don't know if I can wake up tomorrow morning and have breakfast with my family! I've reached bottom!"
Hardee's, McDonald's, and Culver's
King: But it feels like, regarding Quad Cities comedy, we're really starting to see a lot of progression. It's growing incredibly well, and people seem to be responding to it very well. It feels like there's not just a ground floor anymore. I think there's a second floor now. And it's only getting bigger.
Strader: I think everyone at this table, and so many more of us who aren't at this table, are gonna continue to raise the bar, and they're gonna continue to challenge people's perception of what comedy is.
Adamson: I know that even if I, as the "engine" of ComedySportz, would no longer pull the train behind me, there are so many dedicated people that would pick up and continue to do it. Because they love it. That's what's really cool for me, looking at my team and looking at the community.
Strader: That's just the thing. People wanted to focus so much on competition at first, they failed to acknowledge the miracle of what was going on.
Adamson: Like the Russians and the U.S. hockey team!
Strader: They failed to acknowledge the opportunity of having so many options. They just didn't really see it as "People eat at Hardee's, they eat at McDonald's, and they eat at Culver's." People can get a taste of so many different perspectives. Andrew's sense of humor is totally unlike mine. Patrick's sense of humor is unlike mine.
King: We're all good at something different.
Strader: And the people sitting here now aren't "The Dons of Comedy" or anything. They're just people who continue to fight the hardest they can to achieve our vision. Your dad, Patrick, was a great role model for all of us. Jeff Adamson has undying energy. And if you're driven by passion and nothing can deter you ... . That's who you're talking to.
Adamson: Whether we have 60 people in the audience or 180 people, we do the best we can.
Strader: Hell, I had 12 people last Friday and it was a great show. The comedians were amazing. Those 12 people laughed their asses off. I'm like, "This isn't a failure."
King: At the very first After Hour that we did, there were so many people just from the artistic community there, and they all loved it. And I was like, "If I can get these people believing in what I'm doing - this stamp of approval from all these wonderful, influential people - I don't think I can lose as long as I keep going as hard as I've been going." I've been so fortunate to be integrated with the arts community here, and a major great thing about this area is that you can integrate so many different talents. Because every skill set is here in one form from another.
Strader: And that's just the thing. People ask me: Are you threatened by Andrew King? Are you threatened by Patrick Adamson?
Adamson: Only when I stand up.
Strader: Never. You know I like tall people. But I'm always like, "No, I'm really not. You have to understand there's an audience for every type of comic and every style of comedy." There are more opportunities now because there are different individuals willing to fill different needs. Our bar-prov crowd is a very particular niche. Andrew's filling the need of what I believe to be a very intellectual audience, and I've always admired his comedy for being intellectually based. And Patrick, with ComedySportz and his diversification with the Studio series ... . It's a wide net. All these comedy establishments in the area are thriving.
Adamson: And one or two more probably would do the area good.
King: If I ever found money, I wouldn't mind opening just a dedicated stand-up room somewhere. Just stand-up.
Adamson: And I think what a lot of people in the Quad Cities fail to realize, too, is that we serve the outside area for entertainment.
Strader: Sixty miles. At least.
Adamson: Every weekend it's "Have you guys been here before?" "No, we haven't. We're from Maquoketa. We thought we'd go to 'the cities' and have a weekend away." And we get it from Monmouth and Macomb and Galesburg ... . Just like you'd say to your significant other, "Let's get out of town - what's going on in Dubuque? 'Cause I don't want to go that far, but I want to get out of the Quad Cities."
Strader: We're not just limited to 365,000 people with a median income of 40 grand.
Adamson: People are coming here, and coming to see us. In 1990, when ComedySportz first started - .
King: That's when I was born!
Strader: Jesus! Stop!
Adamson: - it was an outside entity that was served into the community. And we've had a couple versions of the Funny Bone, a couple versions of Penguin's, Jester's ... . But none of those were really local. And now with the Studio Series, and the Blacklist, and Andrew's formats, and everything else, there are all these "homegrown," quote unquote, shows. It's like: "Buy Local"? We laugh local.
Strader: Laugh local?! Oh my God!
Strader: That's so good! LaughLocal.com! Buying it!
King: Have you been saving that this whole goddamned time?!
Strader: Were you just sitting on that?!
Adamson: Actually, guys, the T-shirts go on sale in three weeks.
Adamson: Yeah. They're for the World Championships.
Strader: You dick!
King: He was gonna buy the URL just now!
Strader: Do you have the URL? 'Cause if not, I'm gonna beat ya!
ComedySportz performs at the Establishment (220 19th Street, Rock Island) Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., with Studio Series shows at 9:30 p.m. The ComedySportz World Championships will be held at the venue June 10 through 13, and more information is available by visiting ComedySportzQC.com and EstablishmentQC.com.
The Blacklist and occasional touring comedians perform at the Backroom Comedy Theater (1510 Harrison Street, Davenport) Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 9 p.m., with comedy open-mic nights Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. Upcoming events also include June 6's evening with touring comedian Josh Alton, and more information is available by visiting BlacklistComedy.com.
Andrew King hosts Rozz-Talks at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island) the first Sunday of the month at 8 p.m., The After Hour at the Circa '21 Speakeasy (1818 Third Avenue, Rock Island) the second Friday of the month at 10:30 p.m., and Bix Beiderbomb: Comedy Invitational at Boozie's Bar & Grill (114 1/2 West Third Street, Davenport) Thursdays at 8 p.m. June 7's Rozz-Talks guest is Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, and the June 12 After Hour features Aiden Landman, James Draper, and the One Night Standards. Information on King's events is available at RozzTox.com, Circa21.com, and Facebook.com/BixBeiderbomb.