On a summer evening about a year ago, a small group of local comedians took turns performing for an equally small audience at the cozy and intimate 3 Bean Coffee in Federal Hill. One of the standups that evening was Jessica Murphy Garrett, then 33, whose performance that night was pivotal, thanks to unapologetically female-driven content delivered without even the slightest hint of shame. “I’ve realized that I look like a sexy monster,” she said, sharing her recent realizations of both her strengths and weaknesses on Baltimore’s dating scene. The audience cackled.
Less than a year later, Garrett was onstage at The Ottobar performing for a crowd of more than 100. The standing-room-only audience stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark, while the spotlight fell on Garrett, an opener for headliner Michael Ian Black. In a dress and heeled boots, she looked reserved. Her material was the opposite, with shocking overshares and intimately personal anecdotes that had the entire room laughing out loud. She did what every comedian hopes to do – she killed it that night.
“My first standup, I think I was 16,” Garrett says. It was at a coffee shop in Denver and she nervously took the stage for the first time in front of a small group of close friends. “It’s hard to do an open mic when you’re under 18,” she says, so she had to search twice as hard to find stages where she could practice her craft. She persisted, whether through writing sketch comedy for Single Carrot Theatre, which she helped found in 2006, or making the rounds to open mics and booked shows in Baltimore. In this way, she honed her creative process.
“When something comes to me, I write down the bones of it. Then I usually take it to an open mic before it’s a real joke, just to get a sense of what it sounds like on stage,” Garrett says. If the material is well-received, she continues to flesh it out until it’s something she can include in her act.
“I have realized that my ‘type’ is pasty alcoholics,” she jokes in one of her sets. In another, she plays on the tried-and-true ‘emotional woman” stereotype, recalling the last time she cried while eating. This involved a chicken Caesar wrap and a video of otters holding onto each other’s paws. It’s a bit in which she musters actual tears on stage as she weeps and hyperventilates through each detail.
Garrett describes herself as “a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond” in the Baltimore comedy world. Of course she’s bombed, an experience all standups must endure from time to time. “It certainly doesn’t happen as much as it used to, partly because you become a better comedian and you know how to read a room better.”
Her friend and fellow comedian Josh Kuderna was also on the ticket at the Michael Ian Black show that night at The Ottobar. He both hosted the show and performed a set, with a self-deprecating, introspective story-telling approach that drew the crowd in. Kuderna has this plain, nice-guy disposition that adds to the unexpectedness of his humor. He mentioned his new braces, then sarcastically shouted out “Ladies?!” He interacted with the audience with ease and confidence, boosting the room’s energy.
Kuderna, 30, got his start in standup four years ago right here in Baltimore, at the former location of Joe Squared on North Avenue. He remembers that first night as “being onstage nonstop talking.” What was supposed to be a four-minute set tuned into nine minutes of nervous babbling. His strategy that night was simple, he says: “If I stop talking, that’s when they’re supposed to laugh, and if they don’t laugh, I’ll kill myself! So I’ll just keep going.” Since then, he’s learned how to use the crowd’s presence to enhance his act, advising that “you’ve gotta have the confidence to give the audience room to laugh. You’ve gotta give it room to breathe.”
Kuderna also hosts “The Digression Session,” a comedy podcast that hosted Patton Oswalt as a guest in 2014. Kuderna continues to work the Baltimore standup scene while branching out to venues in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
“You get more secure with yourself, because you have to,” he says. Unlike most other forms of artistic expression, “the refinement period with comedy has to be in front of people. If you were painting, you would show me the good one,” he says. But with standup, an audience has to be there every time you practice, so it’s vital to learn how to handle a crowd’s reaction while you’re working out material, even when met with painful crickets — or worse — heckling.
Kuderna shares a joke he is in the process of working out. “It’s about PC [politically correct] language. So, instead of mailman it’s mail person, instead of chairman it’s chairperson, and when it gets to garbageman, it’s garbage person.” After pausing for a moment of laughter, Kuderna says “you have to try your shit out on other people to know it’s good.”This one is still in the works.
Garrett and Kuderna met at an open mic at Single Carrot Theatre. Since then, they’ve gotten to know each other, crossing paths at various shows and mics in Baltimore. When asked who else in the local scene makes them laugh, they both mentioned Mark “Dark Mark” Joyner without missing a beat. Joyner hosts the longest running open mic in Baltimore on Monday nights at the Sidebar on Baltimore’s Lexington Street — a place both Garrett and Kuderna credit as being a large part of their entry into standup.
The number of comics at Sidebar’s open mic is “easily 40 people,” Joyner, 40, says. Each comic gets three to five minutes on stage, and in between each performer, Joyner and a co-host of his selection keep the jokes going. “Our audience is representative of the city,” Joyner says. He remembers when Sidebar, known mostly for underground punk shows, was a mostly white room, but now, on Mondays, both the comics and the audience are mix of all of Baltimore’s residents. “It slowly became a place where the two sides met — where we came together,” he reflects.
What drew him? “People always told me I should do standup,” Joyner says. “I’m not giving you an act — this is how I am.” It’s believable. He cracks jokes from the second he arrives for this interview, after shamelessly ordering not one, but two pastries with his coffee while making the barista giggle from behind the counter. His personality commands the room, and he’s quick with observations and witty retorts.
Joyner got his start in New York City seven years ago, after serving 10 years in jail and getting a divorce. He needed a change and a fresh start, so he followed his gut to his first open mic. “It was a little scary, but it was enough for me to keep going,” he remembers. “I got some giggles. It felt good.” Since then, he’s made a name for himself in Baltimore. As he dramatically pours himself some water, he gives out a fully belly laugh, saying “Now look at me — I’m here with a bottle of fancy ass water.”
Not only does he work on his own act, he encourages aspiring comedians to give standup a try at Sidebar. His one-man welcoming committee even inspired this journalist to give it a try … or at least practice spitting out some jokes in the privacy of my own home (my boyfriend has been a generous audience — urging me to try out the mic).
Joyner confidently shared some of what he’s learned since he began taking the stage. To him, it’s both a science and an art. The beginning of his set is crucial. “I say something to bring the room together. They’re paying attention now.” Next, he combines pre-rehearsed jokes with improv to make the experience genuine. “If the solid jokes are the bricks, the freestyle is the mortar between,” he explains. “I like to ease my way into a joke.”
In one of Joyner’s sets, he describes his absent father coming to town with a motorcycle. His dad let him ride on the back, but did not allow him to hold onto his waist, claiming that wouldn’t be manly of them. “I was so far back from him it didn’t even look like we were on the same bike,” he says in dead-pan. “It looked like he was riding a motorcycle, and I was riding a motorcycle shaped like my father.” He cracks a huge smile once the audience breaks out in laughter.
“Most people have killed at some point,” Joyner says, whether it’s while performing on stage or telling a story at a party. It’s that feeling he believes all comedians, himself included, are chasing.“I just want to make people laugh,” he says. “It’s who I am — I don’t really have a choice.”