The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Happy anniversary
Five years of funny at Shaskeen


 It’s Wednesday, and there’s laughter in downtown Manchester at the city’s weekly version of Catch A Rising Star, a famous NYC standup spot back in the day. Joyelle Nicole Johnson, fresh off the Late Night With Seth Meyers set, jokes about dating and her roommate’s poor attempt at being a professional dominatrix. “Open mike-level,” she says. “No dungeon, no clientele.”

Before her, feature comic Tawanada Gona challenged the notion of white supremacy. “You’re not the master race,” Gona said. “White people invented jogging, yet they still keep losing marathons.”
Five years ago, comics Nick Lavallee and Dave Carter took a night previously marked by sign-up sheets and five-minute sets and changed the format to booking named comics, talent often found in big-city rooms. From those modest beginnings, the back bar of the Shaskeen is now packed most Wednesdays. 
The only thing it has in common with the old open mike is that the shows are still free, save for the infrequent ticketed event. That’s possible for a couple of reasons. First, midweek rates are lower than weekends. Also, Lavallee offers his Manchester home as a kind of comedy Airbnb, often holding pop-up shows in his basement.
“We have been very consistent for the past five years — we only take off the night before Thanksgiving — and this was the first year we ever had to cancel because of the weather,” Lavallee said recently. “Over 250 shows ... the comics that come through that are L.A.- or New York-based tell their friends about it, and they tell their friends. They know the pay is fair. Word of mouth is really good with comics, and the regulars who see it.”
There have been many highlights. Both Carter and Lavallee point to having Doug Stanhope play a room so packed that chairs had to be removed, turning the club into a comedy mosh pit. 
“That show sold out in seconds,” Carter said. “It was pretty amazing.”
For Lavallee, it was a tie between Stanhope and Kyle Kinane, a comic who’s done several Comedy Central specials. 
“Each has their own distinct fan base and draws,” Lavallee said. “I personally love the two of them as comics, and it was cool to host them in our little room.”
More satisfying is seeing budding talents blossom, like the comic who started with short sets, did her first headlining spot at the club, and last year became a writer on Saturday Night Live. “Watching Sam Jay become Sam Jay is for sure one of the best moments,” Lavallee said. “From 5 then 10 then 12 then 15 minutes ... turning into the beast that she’s become.”
Other great moments include the Bernie vs. Trump mock debate between Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian, held the night before the New Hampshire primary. 
“We had world news outlets stop in for that one; it was insane,” Carter said.
The solo set Adomian did a few months prior was tops for Lavallee. 
“He got a standing ovation and an encore — he came out and did another 12 minutes, “ he said. “That’s never happened before or since. Hands down No. 1, my personal favorite.”
The Shaskeen’s success is mirrored by the industry, which has led to a few growing pains. “Comedy right now is very cool,” Lavallee said. “For a while it felt like punk rock ... you had to be in the know. Now, there are a lot more people doing it and comics have gotten better. The guest spots can feature a closer, so it’s a bigger pool.”
As a result, the format will be changing this summer. Up to now, each show has one headliner, a feature comic and an undercard of five minute sets curated by the two promoters. 
“We’re probably going to move to three paid comics doing longer sets, with one unpaid guest spot doing a short set,” Lavallee said. “I think that’s where these five years have led us.”
The fifth anniversary will close out with a ticketed show on April 25 headlined by Matthew Broussaard, veteran of Conan and Comedy Central; Lavallee will feature. 
Carter stopped doing standup a while back, but as always he’ll kick the night off with a welcome to the audience, a few ground rules and an admonition to have a great time.
Both are pleased and proud to offer a haven for comics Lavallee calls “somewhere between alt and club,” though he bristles at that term. 
“People hear ‘alt’ and think, ‘is that like a prop comic who might have done a semester at Harvard?’ No, this is people from different walks of life with unique circumstances and make their stories seem very relatable to your average New England person. To me, that’s really unique.”
It’s also a satisfying endeavor. 
“It’s very rare to have a show that for the most part is free and we’re able to pay comedians,” Lavallee said. “I’m at a fortunate place in my life to give them a place to stay, and as long as people keep coming out and we’ve got great comics that trust in my ability to promote a show, we’re gonna keep on doing it.” 

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