A brief history of comedy in Chattanooga
If you say the word, “comedy” ’round here, chances are the assumption will be you’re talking about The Comedy Catch. That’s understandable, because, as of this year, the ’Catch has been putting comics on stage for 30 years.
With that anniversary in mind, as well as the upcoming relocation of the Comedy Catch from Brainerd to downtown, we decided to take a look at the last 30 years of comedy here in Chattanooga.
Honestly, before The Comedy Catch opened in 1985, there weren’t many places to see comedy in town. Of course, there was the occasional comedy at The Little Theater or the Backstage Dinner Theater, and I suppose Harry Thornton’s talk show with Judy Corn was funny if you were a shut-in. But if you wanted stand-up comedy, you were basically out of luck. Sure, there was the occasional show in a bar around, but there was no place to go for a regular stand-up comedy show.
That changed in 1985 when comedians Ken Sons and Les McCurdy (a.k.a. “The Bermuda Mavericks” comedy duo) opened up The Comedy Catch inside “Dr. Sage’s Lounge,” high atop the Holiday Inn in the Golden Gateway. If you remember the ’80s, you’ll remember that a nationwide stand-up comedy boom was happening during that decade. As a result, the original ’Catch location quickly became too small for the crowds it was drawing. So, Les and Ken moved the location from downtown through the Brainerd tunnels to the current location.
Right about this time, a young DJ from New Jersey, Michael Alfano, and his wife Cheryl, were looking to start their own business. It’s a story that sounds very familiar in Chattanooga these days; during one of many trips around the country (going from one radio gig to another), the Alfanos passed through Chattanooga, liked what they saw, and made an effort to move here. A short while after settling in town, they found out that Ken and Les were looking to take on some partners in the ’Catch.
It was at this point that Michael’s mother, Dolly, gave him some advice that would change his life: “The worst thing you could do is have a business partner.” She also loaned the young couple the money needed to buy out The Mavericks, and the Alfanos became sole owners of The Comedy Catch. (Dolly would also join her son here in Chattanooga and became a fixture behind the bar at the ’Catch over the years. Speak with any comic that worked there during her tenure and they’ll have at least one great story to tell you.)
Of course, any economic boom can be a double-edged sword. It was just a few years later, in 1989, that Chattanooga got its second full-time comedy club, The Funny Pages. Located further away from downtown, near Eastgate, The Funny Pages began to compete with the ’Catch for Chattanooga’s comedy dollar, and it nearly killed them.
Remember, this was the late ’80s. There was no Facebook or Twitter or even an Internet that could be used to spread the word for free. The Funny Pages ate into the ’Catch’s business so much that, at one point, the Alfanos had to hand out free tickets at Hamilton Place just to fill the room. According to Michael, “[The Funny Pages] knocked us down. We were just gettin’ the ball rolling…We went out to Hamilton Place and just stood there and handed out free tickets.”
But all those free tickets paid off. The Funny Pages closed relatively quickly, and when no other venue opened to take its place, The Comedy Catch quickly became the local 800-pound gorilla of comedy. And things stayed this way pretty much all the way through the ’90s. That’s not a bad thing, however, as it gave a stable comedy “home” to lots of local comics (including yours truly) looking to get into the business and hone their craft via “Open Mic Night.”
As the new millennium rolled around, the comedy landscape shifted again with the opening of The Vaudeville Cafe on the North Shore. When it first opened, the Vaudeville wasn’t focused solely on comedy, though: They had singing waiters, a piano bar and, just one night a week, a “Murder Mystery.”
If you’ve never been to a murder mystery, the concept is pretty simple: While you enjoy a nice meal, a group of actors play out a comedic whodunit in the room with you. While some shows of this type take place entirely on stage, removed from the audience, the Vaudeville folks do things a little differently. The characters will come into the crowd and interact with the audience, even going so far as to sit and eat with them, or bring them on stage to be in the show. It’s a pretty unique combination of scripted (skit), stand-up and improvisation that proved to be a huge hit.
In fact, it was such a hit that soon the singing waiters and other things were being phased out in favor of putting on multiple murder mysteries every week. Nowadays, The Vaudeville Cafe is exclusively murder mysteries and the shows were so successful that they moved from the North Shore to the corner of 2nd and Market Streets. (The Vaudeville had stand-up comedy for a couple of years, but, according to owner Chris Hampton, it wasn’t a good fit. So they went back to just doing murder mysteries.)
Fast-forward to 2009, and 22-year-old Joel Ruiz and some friends begin putting on their own comedy shows in various (very) small venues around town. According to Ruiz, the “alt room comedy” shows started as a bit of a lark. “I had some friends [who were stand-up comics] come visit from L.A. and they wanted to do a comedy show in town but couldn’t find anywhere to do it. So they got set up by a friend at the Chattanooga Billiards Club downtown’s side room and ended up selling the place out.”
After this initial success, these alt-comedy shows began to take place in smaller rooms all over the city: The Office, Barking Legs, Ziggy’s, Rhapsody Cafe and JJ's Bohemia have all seen their share. While these shows still pop up at other venus from time to time, JJ's Bohemia is now the place where you’re most likely to find one.
While the main goal of these shows is to give local comics much-needed stage time to work on their material, they’ve also managed to bring some big names to town, including Doug Stanhope and Kyle Kinane. Ruiz has recently moved to Atlanta, and handed the production of the shows over to Ryan Darling.
Which brings us up to today, more or less.
There were other comedy-type events happening while all of the above was going on. The Chattanooga Theatre Center, for example, has been producing terrific comedies for its 90-plus years of existence.
The Backstage Dinner Theater put on tons of shows during its time, including several comedies that my mother dragged me to in my youth. After it shut down, and became the Encore Theater, it was home to even more funny shows. In its current incarnation as the Ripple Theater, its very first show was one of the most famous comedies ever written, Shakespeare’s “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Over the past decade or so, improv comedy (like you would see on TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) has become very popular, and Chattanooga is no slouch in that department either. We’ve got a bunch of great improv troupes here in town (several of which I happen to be in) and you can catch at least one great improv show in town every week. The Mellow Mushroom downtown has a show every Tuesday, and the Ensemble Theater of Chattanooga has one on the second Saturday of each month.
Heck, there’s even a talented young man named Dakota Brown that’s been writing and producing his very own old-time comedy radio show/podcast for the last few years. It’s called “Horace Kentucky’s Chronal Detective Agency” and you can find it on iTunes if you want to give it a listen. (It’s funny!)
So, what does the future hold for comedy in Chattanooga? Well, the Vaudeville Cafe just recently completed a move to a brand-new location. And, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, The Comedy Catch is going to be moving to a new location inside the renovated Choo Choo early this summer.
The very heart of comedy is surprise. So there’s no telling what the future holds for us here in Chattanooga. But I’m willing to bet our town’s punchline is going to be even better, and funnier, than the last 30 years.
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Editor's note: This article has been corrected to remove a line about Dolly Alfano having passed away. She is, in fact, alive and well and even coming out of retirement to help with the move of The Comedy Catch to the Choo Choo complex. The author and The Pulse sincerely regret the error.