Fans of comedy in Vermont now have a dedicated space to get their laugh on. Vermont Comedy Club opened its downtown Burlington doors late last year to a sold-out weekend and has been booking national comedy talent ever since.
Vermont Comedy Club's owners Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller recently spoke with VPR's resident stand-up comic Annie Russell about the comedy community in Vermont and the ups and downs of club ownership.
Can you give us a brief history of how you guys got here and why you decided to make this very big investment?
"We've been doing comedy for about seven years now," says Miller. "We started as just performers. Then, there weren't a lot of opportunities for us to perform around the state. We're the kind of people that are just going to create opportunities for ourselves, so we started producing more shows. The more we did that the more fun we were having."
"We sort of kept producing shows and learning from our mistakes," Hartswick adds. "We eventually started teaching comedy classes. We started in stand-up and then we started adding improv. So it's just been sort of an organic growth thing, where we look at what else we feel like isn't there for comedy opportunity in Vermont, and try to provide it in some way."
I certainly have my own opinions about this, and I know a lot of comedians do, but what is a Vermont comedy audience like?
"Well, they've changed," says Hartswick. "When we first started doing comedy shows in Vermont, I think they were a little nervous. They were used to maybe watching a seventh grade band concert. So they weren't exactly, interactive, I would say. They enjoyed themselves. But they're very polite."
"In general audiences I think are more on the intellectual side here," Hartswick says. "They're very smart and very sharp. And maybe a little more politically correct than in other places which you would probably expect."
If one looks at your calendar, they'll see everything from alt comedy to national headliners to improv. A recent show that I went to that I really enjoyed was the Trump vs. Bernie show. But somebody who enjoys that show might not be up for the 7:00 p.m. Valentine's Day show with a headlining comic. So how do you appeal to these different audiences?
"It's all about trying to balance the programming out," says Hartswick. "We just try to have a variety of different styles of comedy and then we try to make sure we communicate those effectively. So if you like Brian Regan Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld: you'll like this guy. I actually have been really surprised that people have come in really knowing what they're getting."
What has surprised you most since opening the club?
"The first week we were open, we found a water bottle full of urine," says Miller.
"You're not going to tell that story!" Hartswick laughs.
"I think honestly the thing that is surprising is what some people will do," says Miller.
"It's the the running a nightclub part of it," adds Hartswick. "Previously, we were doing comedy nights in other people's venues. Because now we have our own venue, we get to see the misbehaving antics of the very few."
Can you talk about what it means to local comedians to have this home base? And what happens to the other shows that local comedians and comedy producers are still trying to launch?
"One of the major things that we wanted to do when we opened the club you was to give a home to comedy in Vermont," says Miller. "It was really fragmented and spread out. Now we are seeing comedians every night just coming in hanging out. We're seeing writing groups coming. Our open mics are very, very popular, a lot of comedians are getting on stage more consistently."
"People are taking our classes and then hanging out afterwards and seeing shows," adds Hartswick.
"As far as the other shows around the state, what I've heard is that the audiences as have actually grown," says Miller. "Which is great, and that was something that we also did think was going to happen."
"And that's something we wanted," says Hartswick. "We wanted people to continue to produce independent shows, because that's good for everybody. It's a rising tide situation."
What can you tell us about this year's Green Mountain Comedy Festival, and what other shows are you most excited about right now?
"The Green Mountain Comedy Festival has happened every year on Memorial Day weekend, but this year we're going to bump it to a different time of year," says Hartswick. "So we're excited. The dates are July 18-23. It's a Monday through Saturday, and we're very excited to be able to be a summer festival in Burlington."
"The next month [at VCC] we have some of my favorite comedians," says Miller. "Kurt Braunohler is coming this weekend. Then the two weekends after that are women who are on the 'Women Who Kill' Netflix special, which is awesome. That's Marina Franklin and Rachel Feinstein."
"And then we have Kyle Kinane," says Miller. "Who is hands-down the best stand up show that I've ever seen. The great thing about having a venue" she says, "is that you can bring in people that you really want to see."
Disclosure: Annie Russell has performed at Vermont Comedy Club.