The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








Comedian Nick Lavallee. Photo by Sid Ceaser.

Keep coming back: Dan Soder tells how it’s done 

Comedian and actor Dan Soder is a Colorado native now based in New York City who has twice traveled north to New Hampshire to headline the Shaskeen standup showcase — and expects to return no matter how high his star climbs. The first time was in January 2013, when he also played at Derry’s Halligan Tavern, a Thursday night sister event that ran weekly until last fall.
Soder returned in September 2015, and a lot had happened career-wise for him between his two Granite State shows. His journey was right in line with a key goal of the Shaskeen’s comedy series: spot and book rising stars before they’re out of reach. 
“The first time Dan was here he’d just done his Comedy Central half hour,” Nick Lavallee said. “When he came back he was about to tape a full hour [Dan Soder: Not Special, which debuted May 21 on the network]. He’d also done bits on Amy Schumer between that time.”
As an actor, he appeared in Schumer’s smash hit Trainwreck. Soder also had a recurring dramatic role on the Showtime series Billions, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis. He was juggling the latter job and readying his first full-length special when he drove to Manchester the last time.
One of the perks of playing the Shaskeen is an Airbnb experience at Lavallee’s in-town bachelor home. It’s cheaper than a hotel, and comics consider it a good hang. 
“He pulled in my driveway and the first thing he said was, ‘Dude, I can’t even stay the night,’ but he was so committed to doing to show,” Lavallee said. “After the show, he stayed for an hour, drove back to New York, slept for two or three hours and then drove to scout his location for the special. But he was down with it.”
Soder said in a phone interview that he hadn’t even considered jettisoning the show despite his chaotic schedule.
“No way, man! I love the Shaskeen Pub,” he said. “The people want to be there, and they want to laugh, which is super important for comedy. Because if you have an audience that gives a shit, then the comic gives a shit; they just kind of meet in the middle and it becomes a great show.”
Coming so close to taping his Comedy Central special turned out to be a good thing, Soder continued. 
“I basically ran my hour ... which was really fun,” he said. “I was kind of worried about getting it to 60 minutes, so it was fun to go up there and go 65 minutes, mess around and have fun.” 
Audience feedback helped, too. 
“It was a really good crowd, to the point where I was hoping that the taping would be just as fun,” Soder said. “I got lucky and they were.”
Despite an ever-demanding schedule, Soder expects he’ll come back to town at some point. Much of it has to do with the people running the weekly shows. 
“I met Nick through comedy, and he had me come up to Shaskeen and stay at his house for a couple of days,” Soder said. “He’s a real warm host and a fun guy, easy to hang out with. … Usually, you’re just in the hotel. It does feel like he draws you into the community for a little bit.”
With his current resume, Soder is beyond the Shaskeen’s asking price, but that fact doesn’t concern him. 
“It’s not about money at that point,” he said. “I mean, it could be about money, but as far as a room like the Shaskeen goes ... I don’t want to call it a laboratory, because I don’t want to demean it in any way, but you kind of know you can get good work done there. So you want to keep that around; you want to go to a place that will facilitate and foster you growing as a comedian. That’s one of those rooms where you feel that way: OK, great; I can have a fun show.” 
Welcome back, Cotter
As a young comic, Tom Cotter — best known nationally as the runner-up in the seventh season of America’s Got Talent — played a lot of shows in New Hampshire. And he just headlined a benefit for Alex’s Lemonade Stand at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. 
He sees the Granite State as integral to a scene that he believes is comedy’s most demanding. 
“Boston was, in my opinion, the best proving ground in the country for standup comics, and I’ve always said you put a Boston comic against any comic in the country and the Boston comic is going to shine just because we’re trained to kill from the second we get on stage,” he said. “When we worked at Nick’s Comedy Shop, we called it Thunder Dome — you know, two men enter one man leaves; you had to kill. … Steven Wright was an opening act because he couldn’t follow anybody; he was just too low-key.”
Coming to the Granite State was not a trip to comedy’s backwater, Cotter said. 
“Obviously, Adam Sandler, Sarah Silverman and Seth Meyers — they all came out of there, and they really get comedy. I remember performing at Manchester clubs that have come and gone over the years ... I always knew they were going to get it. It was kind of a suburb of Boston in my mind; they were Bostonians in the fact that they get the hard-driven attitude that is comedy. They were sharp, whereas in the middle of the country you’ve got to slow it down and their synapses are not firing as fast. Manchester’s been a great ally for Boston comics for years.”

How to succeed in comedy by really really trying
how guys like Nick Lavallee are making money making jokes and where you can see them

By Michael Witthaus

In the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, media from across the globe descended upon the Granite State — and so too did a rash of comedians. 

Faux presidential candidate Jimmy Tingle did four Concord shows, fellow Boston political laugh man Barry Crimmins appeared twice in the state and Jim McCue’s one-man Politics as Unusual show played the Capitol Center.
A trio of SiriusXM satellite radio stars — John Fugelsang, Pete Dominick and Dean Obedaliah — brought their Electoral College Tour to Portsmouth’s Press Room on primary eve. The same night in Manchester’s Shaskeen Pub, a faux debate between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump played to a sold-out house, hours after doing the same thing on the Seacoast at 3S Artspace.
Finding success at the Shaskeen
Bringing the Bernie-vs.-Trump show to the downtown Irish pub was a coup engineered by Manchester native Nick Lavallee, a comedian whose work as an entrepreneur and local booster has come to overshadow almost every aspect of his life. Lavallee, along with former comic Dave Carter, took over management of the Shaskeen’s Wednesday night comedy series a few years back and quickly transformed it from an open mike to a showcase of national-level talent.
Scoring the election season booking was a classic study in relationship-building. James Adomian, who plays The Donald in the comedy debate against Anthony Atamanuik’s Bernie, did the Shaskeen in summer 2015 and received the club’s first-ever standing ovation. When plans began to take the act on tour, Adomian thought of the comic-friendly room in Manchester, and reached out.
If you flip on the television on any given day, a Shaskeen Comedy Night veteran could be onscreen. Chris Hardwick’s Comedy Central game show sendup @midnight recently had Kyle Kinane and Dan Soder. Other cable star alumni include W. Kamau Bell, Alington Mitra and Myq Kaplan. 
Most, like the quirky Kaplan, keep returning to the Shaskeen. 
“What sets it apart is that Nick and the people running it care so much about it,” Kaplan said after a recent show at Londonderry’s Tupelo Music Hall. “If you’re in an Irish bar setting you might be like ... are they going to be super drunk and yelling, or even know there is a comedy show? Nick and Dave know how to treat the audience and the comedians; it’s just nice when people are like that.”
Lavallee brings a missionary zeal to his task. 
“I wanted to offer national acts a place to come and perform in Manchester,” he said while preparing for a recent Wednesday night starring Kenny DeForest and Clark Jones, cohosts at NYC’s famed Knitting Factory. Lavallee said the effort builds on itself. “My charge is to bring culture into the community that I grew up in and that I presently own property in. On top of that, the next level I see is we can foster talent and watch it grow — like Drew Dunn.”
The open mike component helped Dunn rise from raw beginner to seasoned comic; it’s among a few pieces carried over from the old model by Lavallee and Carter. Getting on the bill requires more bona fides than in the past, but it allows promising talent to find their footing and move forward, and Dunn is a great example. 
“I think he barely had five minutes when he started coming in here,” Lavallee said. “Now he’s headlining.”
Comedy at the Shaskeen began in 2008 when Nick David launched Laugh Free or Die. In April 2013, Laugh Free or Die moved down Elm Street to Murphy’s Taproom, while Lavallee, Carter and Sean Tumblety took over at the Irish bar. Worry that the split would foster acrimony in the comedy community “got in our rearview mirror pretty fast,” said Carter. 
Lavallee echoed Carter’s sentiments. 
“When we were hired to produce the show, I knew that it was going to happen regardless [of] whether I was here or not, and it wasn’t an opportunity for me as much as I was given a mission to be successful for the benefit of what comedy could mean for southern New Hampshire.”
It also meant bringing a different kind of comic to town. 
“Above and beyond everything else, we pride ourselves on being eclectic here,” said Carter. 
“Pick a style and we’ve had it here, all voices,” Lavallee said. “I know people hear ‘diversity’ and think we want to meet a quota, but it’s not that. You learn about people through laughter; if someone hears a gay, black or woman comic — these are different voices that they’re not necessarily going to see in a traditional comedy club setting. We are ... I don’t want to say progressive, that’s kind of a crappy word, but I feel like we’re somewhere between alt scene and a club, a bridge between those two worlds. There is a difference between alt comedy and club comedy.”
Comedy blooming 
Out on the Seacoast, a similar energy has pushed up comedy’s profile. Josh Day is a Hampton comic who became a promoter when he took over the monthly standup night at Newmarket’s Stone Church from Pat Janssen in 2014. At the time, the event was foundering. In a recent phone interview, Day recalled that there were six people on stage and the same number in the audience for his first night running the show. 
“I guess it was very personal, since everybody had their own comedian,” he said with a wry laugh. “I was excited to do it, but it was kind of a smack in the face. I realized that this was going to take a little bit of work.”
Echoing the effort in Manchester, open mike gave way to invited headliners and feature comics. Eventually, the two operations began to informally share talent. 
“Nick had Ben Kronberg at the Shaskeen, and I loved him even before I started doing comedy,” Day said. “I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so I asked Nick if it was cool. … That was the first one, and then we kind of started collaborating. … I’ll have Nick on my shows, and he has me on his. It’s definitely a good relationship between us.”
Dismal beginnings gave way to blooming success; in October 2015, Day began presenting shows at the newly opened Birdseye Lounge in downtown Portsmouth, attracting Kronberg for an early show; other nights had Boston comics Tony V. and Paul D’Angelo. Appearing unbilled a few times is Juston McKinney, perhaps the region’s most beloved comic. 
“I don’t book him as a headliner because he [performs] so many other shows in the area,” Day said. “But he’ll come in and just do a guest spot and just crush, and it’s really cool that he will do that. It always lifts the show up.”
McKinney usually headlines theaters and opera houses, among an elite group of comics that includes Bob Marley, Lenny Clarke and Jimmy Dunn. Dropping into area comedy clubs provides him with a low-pressure outlet to try out new material. He’s a semi-regular across the border at Winner’s Circle in Salisbury, which holds a weekly open mike. That’s where he and Day first met — a funny story, actually. 
After a lot of practice in front of friends and the mirror, Day worked up the courage to try his act in front of an audience, and headed to Winner’s Circle one Wednesday night; coincidentally, it was also Valentine’s Day. Nerves twitching, he waited in the wings for his name to be called, but instead the host began to introduce McKinney.
“I’m hearing, ‘All right, the next guy has been on The Tonight Show and had his own Comedy Central special’ and I’m thinking, that is definitely not me,” Day said. “It blew my mind! I was already having a panic attack — then I have to follow the funniest guy in New England.” 
Day decided to head into the crowd and watch the veteran comic’s set, and made his first mistake: “I was so dumb back then,” he said. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to sit up front.” 
McKinney began setting up a joke that hinged on a phrase consisting of the word “whiskey” and the nickname for a man named Richard. The comic asked if anyone in the audience knew what he meant by the expression, and Day naively volunteered that he did. In an instant, the wholesome comic began to “work blue” — with Day as the bit’s linchpin.
His punchline echoed The Aristocrats, the 2005 movie about a famous raunchy routine discussed and retold by dozens of comics. “It was such a dirty joke, and I did not expect it to come from him,” Day said. “I’m thinking, great — now I have to go up on stage after that; but it actually worked out. I walked on and said, ‘They introduced me as Josh Day, but in most circles, I go by ‘Whiskey Dick.’ That was the first thing I ever said on a stage.”
Day and his cohort built up the Stone Church in Newmarket by combining low-tech leafletting with social media campaigns; the effort has continued with similar success at Birdseye Lounge in Portsmouth. Crowds have grown consistently, often exceeding 100 for shows like Kevin McFarlane last February. It’s allowed him to go after bigger names like Dan Bolger (also a Shaskeen headliner) and Comedy Central Presents comic Sean Donnelly, who appears June 23 at Birdseye. 
The Stone Church now offers an additional Saturday night show. 
“Fridays were getting so popular,” Day said. “The Stone Church has been amazing to me, and they are so supportive. I can’t say enough about the manager and just everyone there. They are all great. Kevin McFarlane was our first Saturday show and it went awesome. So we will see what happens. … Hopefully, we will keep the room going.”
Open mikes & good crowds 
The open mike component continues, though at Shaskeen the criteria are tighter; it’s not possible to simply walk in off the street and be added to the list. These “open auditions” remain a vital building block for comics trying to find a bigger spotlight. Among the many venues in the region hosting regular open comedy nights are Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester (Wednesdays), Penuche’s Ale House in Concord (Mondays) and Fody’s in Nashua (final Thursday of each month). “Princess Goddess” Alana Susko runs three events under her Comedy on Purpose umbrella: Pacific Fusion in Merrimack (Tuesdays), Winston’s Tavern (formerly Hilltop) in Derry (Thursdays) and Soho in Hudson (the third Thursday of the month).
Matt Donaher was an early alum of the Shaskeen’s open mike night during its Laugh Free or Die days, appearing at many of Susko’s shows early on. The quirky comic is a genius with one-liners, and everyone who saw him work back then considered him destined for bigger things. 
In his career, Donaher traveled a circuit familiar to a lot of successful New Hampshire comics. He first moved to the Boston suburb of Somerville, a creative hub bursting with musicians, artists and performers of every stripe. When not working places like Cambridge’s Comedy Studio and Boston’s Comedy Connection, Donaher and his friends would pile into his car and head north to hit the mid-week open mike nights.
Next, Donaher moved to New York City, where the sheer density of clubs almost guarantees work if a comic wants it badly enough. By working the comedy muscle, he developed reflexes and professionalism vital to his craft. The comic now lives and works in Los Angeles. 
Hard work paid off; Donaher most recently appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late night show for his second time. When not bouncing from club to club in his new home, he tours incessantly, going where the work takes him. In late May, he hopscotched across Oklahoma playing a chain of comedy clubs called The Loony Bin. During a break from the weeklong run, he spoke by phone about how open mike nights continue to shape him as a comic.
“I don’t even really know if important is the right word for it; really, it’s necessary,” Donaher said. “I always tell people there’s only two things you can control in this business and that’s how much you write and how much you get up on stage, [but] if there’s no rooms you’re going to have a hard time finding stage time. Luckily in New Hampshire that’s going on right now, and the other thing that is a real big benefit is that these rooms have audiences.”
A key factor for Donaher is that the region’s crowds have matured as the comedy scene has grown. 
“It’s not enough just to be able to get up on stage; the room is not going to make a difference,” he said. “It’s the fact that these New England rooms have such good audiences ... you know they’re not going to listen to you if you’re not funny. You’ve got to make them laugh. ... They make you good really quickly. They make you want to be good.”
King of NH Comedy 
If New Hampshire has a King of Comedy, it’s probably Rob Steen, owner and operator of the Headliners franchise. With over 30 years in the business, Steen wears every possible hat and works every role, on stage and behind the scenes. He’s one of the best standups around, and hosts or performs as much as he books. His empire is vast, with a centerpiece club in downtown Manchester, and semi-regular events offered at over a dozen other locations, from the Merrimack Valley to the White Mountains.
If a club, tavern owner or charity needs a roomful of laughs, Steen is the go-to guy. His website’s name says it all:
Crucially, Steen serves as field marshal for a sort of comedy boot camp — if a standup can pass through Steen’s crucible of downtown clubs, suburban bars, family restaurants and the occasional summer camp, they’re prepared for just about anything. 
“It’s kind of like a farm system,” he said prior to a sold-out mid-May Lenny Clarke show in Manchester. “You got these guys that can work their crowd, but they need to get outside of their comfort zone. Working for me, they can do that.”
You won’t find open mike nights at Headliners, but Steen recently began hosting what’s called a showcase night at Country Tavern in Nashua. Held once a month, the event serves a similar purpose, but with a stricter entry policy. Comics are chosen well before show night and their pictures are on the poster, but marquee-name drop-ins can happen.
In a 2014 interview with the Hippo, Steen said it’s all about keeping the comedy instincts limber. 
“The audience tastes change and you have to change with it,” he said. “I tell comedians, ‘You should all work out in the open mikes and showcases because there are things that you don’t know about and you’re going to miss the boat.’ You have to really work on your material and how you present your act.”
Independent operators
Jay Grove is among the comics who spent time playing for Steen’s ha-ha version of the Manchester Monarchs. Now he’s a comic entrepreneur, and he credits Steen with providing vital tips on how to be a promoter along with guidance on how to work a room. The affable Steen doesn’t view Grove’s efforts as competition, believing there’s plenty to go around and that all of it is good for the regional comedy scene. Grove is frequently booked on Steen’s shows (similarly, Lavallee is also a semi-regular at Headliners).
Onstage, Grove riffs on his hardscrabble upbringing, and his tenacity in business reflects this. Grove began at Concord’s Penuche’s Ale House, convincing the ownership there to let him have the room every Monday, a traditionally dead night. For the recently divorced Grove the effort was both therapeutic and commercial. The next level for Grove was introducing the Best Bar Comic competition. 
The 2016 Best Bar Comic preliminaries begin Aug. 1, marking the event’s sixth year. Grove said the caliber of talent has risen with each go-round. 
“I think the overall quality of comic is better than it was the first couple of years. Word has gotten out that you really need to be able to get up there and be a certain type of act, one who can work the crowd and roll with adversity. That’s thinned the herd to some degree and we now see some really great performances.”
Last year marked the contest’s first back-to-back winner, and Grove has a hunch it may happen again. 
“I think the big story has to be Alan Richardson looking to three-peat,” he said. “As a booker, you have to take notice of a guy like that who’s consistently beating 11 challengers.”
Using the name Awesome Entertainment, Grove presents shows throughout the area, many in his home base of Rochester. The 2nd Lilac City New Comics Contest begins June 26 at Radloff’s, a cigar bar that’s long hosted Grove’s shows. A monthly series at the Starlite Cinemas in Rochester that had Mark Scalia June 18 returns July 23 and Aug. 27, with talent to be announced. 
Grove also took a page from the Steen playbook with his Comedy at the Campground series of Saturday standup shows taking place at rustic locales throughout New England all summer long. 
“It’s been a boon for me,” Grove said. “There’s no marketing, a built-in audience, and it’s all BYOB so they don’t care about bar sales. They provide me with a site for the weekend so I’m a hero with the wife. And they pay, on time and more than a club.”
He came up with the concept after he was hired to work a few. 
“Mostly outdoor and not great shows, but the idea intrigued me,” Grove said. “So I offered a special rate last year for a two-comic 60-minute show and they really jumped at it. I got invited by the Maine Campground Owners Association to perform at their annual meeting last year ... and took over as the official comedy booker. My mailing list is about 190 campgrounds. ... I only need 10 to fill the summer, and I had that by Easter.”
Promoter Mike Smith is also a comic and frequently introduces the show he promotes, but with a big dollop of self-deprecation. Smith found his true talent a little over a decade ago. He’s the primary comedy booker for Tupelo Music Hall, and runs shows at a half dozen other area venues, from Salisbury Beach to below the Canadian border. 
When Smith took the reins at Tupelo in 2005, it was not an auspicious start. 
“We had 28 people at the first show on a Friday, and the next we did about 35,” he said. “I thought for sure we were done before we started, but [Tupelo owner] Scott Hayward stayed with us. In 2006 we did four shows, which drew much better, and in 2007 we began monthly shows.”
With the recent comedy boom, these events have nearly doubled. 
“In 2015, we did 21 shows including fundraisers, and this year we’re on the same pace,” Smith said. “All told, we have to this point done a combined 138 regular shows and fundraisers.”
Smith began doing shows at Pitman’s Freight Room, a Laconia music listening room and BYOB club, in November 2012. 
“We had a crowd of 86, which was pretty good for the first time out,” he said. “We are now regularly playing to 160 to 220. The owners, Dick and Connie Mitchell, are great people to work with. A lot of the faces are familiar ... a great number of people are at a number of shows each year. But the room is also picking up new people all the time.”
Where it all leads
A big goal for any New England comic is to work for Jim Roach, a veteran promoter who books theaters and opera houses throughout the region. His elite clientele includes McKinney, Bob Marley, Lenny Clarke and comedy hypnotist Frank Santos Jr. In an early June phone interview, Roach said he’s encouraged by the current scene and hopes it will deliver the next big star for his shows.
“There’s a ton more comedy out there these days, and that is great because there’s areas to work,” he said. “The Boston guys — Lenny, Steve Sweeney, Don Gavin — they all had places to work when they first came up. Everybody was doing comedy and then it really kind of died off for a while. We would see it at some specific clubs, but not everywhere. Now there are a lot of clubs doing or trying it and more charity events that are utilizing it — and a lot more work for guys.”
This plethora of venues allows good comics to polish their act and develop new material, but Roach noted a caveat. 
“It also lends itself to bad comedy, with guys who aren’t ready being called headliners,” he said. “My fear is sometimes people go to those shows and if they don’t see creativity and someone working their craft, but somebody being crude and rude, they may not go back to real comedy.”
Adaptability is key for a comic to move from success in front of a couple dozen people to hundreds, Roach said. 
He offered another of his big-name clients, Jimmy Dunn, as a good example. 
“I put Jimmy in a room full of women, he can take his material in and change it just enough so the women get on board and then do the same thing with all-male events,” he said. “He can also do it at a comedy club, where it’s a little louder and rowdier. That’s an art form; it needs work. That’s why I generally work with the guys who have been doing it for 15 to 30 years. They know how to do that stuff.”
Roach has his eyes on a few that might be able to eventually make the cut — Matt Barry is a Manchester comic who’s opened some shows for him and has good audience rapport. 
“But there are some guys out there who call themselves headliners who I wouldn’t use as an opening act,” he said. “They call me and say, ‘Hey I’m a headliner’ and I say, ‘Where?’ and it’s some 80-seat room. That doesn’t make you a headliner in the theater. Have a passion for it and work your act; then you can get to theaters.”
Talent alone won’t land a spot on Roach’s roster. 
“The comics I work with, I have to like them personally first and then I like them professionally second,” he said. “Because I don’t want to worry about someone that I put on stage to not be tried-and-true. When you leave the clubs and go to theaters, it’s a different ballgame.”
Then and now
Lenny Clarke laid the groundwork for Tom Cotter’s experience when he launched comedy nights in a room above a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant called Ding Ho. It’s the subject of the excellent documentary, When Standup Stood Out. In the early ’80s, a comic could blow up in a club, appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and have their own sitcom within a week. 
The vehicles have changed in the Netflix era, but Clarke said before his Headliners show that he’s noticed a resurgence — the current scene reminds him of those halcyon days. “It’s got a lot of feel that the Ding Ho era had, because people come out for live performances,” he said. “You can see comedy 24-7 with HBO, Comedy Central, et cetera, but people want to see a live show because they never know what they’re going to get. Plus, they know that I never know what I’m going to do. I might have a set list that I look at, but I’ve had the same set list for 40 years.”
For Clarke, the Granite State is a favorite because audiences tend to check political correctness at the door. 
“New Hampshire is like it used to be; people want to be entertained,” he said. “They take the time to get dressed up and drive to a club and they want to laugh. They are encouraging me: ‘Show us something, go crazy, be nuts.’ I feel like they are open. Last night I said, ‘Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but I feel like I can say whatever I want,’ and they said ‘Yes, you can!’ So I said something off color and they complained. I said, ‘Oh, you lied to me!’” 
Clarke has more raucous memories of the state in his early days. 
“I did a place near Rockingham Park, a show with male strippers; I was the comic between dancers,” Clarke said. “We would drive way up and do little New Hampshire clubs that had never tried comedy.  It wasn’t like it is now. Comedy has had a regrowth ... these people know what they want and like, and they come to the shows ready to laugh. They’re fantastic.” 

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