Laugh Till It Hurts
Comedy nights throughout the Berkshires take aim at funny bones
We can only imagine what these comedians —literally—are discussing. But it’s got to be funny. Seth Brown, left, and Thomas Attila “Tom” Lewis at MASS MoCA, where both have performed.
Photo by Scott Barrow
You don’t have to look hard to find hundreds of quotes from comedians comparing comedy to pain. Berkshire comedians Thomas Attila Lewis and Seth Brown most certainly have something to say about that.
They tell a story about one of their earliest performances together. It’s funny, but not something any comedian would want to relive. In fact, it was a total disaster. And it happened to take place at an Applebee’s. “It was the epitome of a show that was completely sprung on all the diners there who had just gone out for a normal dinner at a chain restaurant and then, surprise! Comedy!” says Brown.
“Hey, everybody, a surprise comedy show! You had no idea this was happening and you did not come here for this, but be quiet, stop talking to your friend!” chimes in Lewis. “It seemed like the staff didn’t even know this was supposed to be happening. The bartenders were hostile.”
Ever since, both Lewis and Brown have tried to ensure that no area comedian ever has to endure the same nightmare.“The biggest determination of whether a show is good is, did all the people show up specifically to see comedy?” says Brown.
Both Brown and Lewis do their best to make that happen in Berkshire County, where the interest in live comedy shows is growing. Brown hosts a popular open-mic event in north county, currently taking place at the Common Folk Collective Gallery in North Adams. He and the collective recently hosted Night of Fools, an April Fool’s comedy night featuring area comedians. He also hosts the podcast “The Problem Solvers.”
As for Lewis, without him there might not be a current Berkshire comedy scene. His reach is far—from programming the Colonial Theatre’s Laugh Lounge series, where he brings in names like Kevin Meaney, to his extremely popular Our Hour of Power Hour Comedy Open Mic at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, to his comedy events for the annual 10X10 Festival Comedy Show, to many others. He produces the comedy podcast “My Dumb Friends,” named one of the best by Paste Magazine, and he’s added to his burdens by organizing next year’s Shock City Comedy Festival in Schenectady, New York.
Lewis takes great care to shape his open-mic events to please both performer and audience. He limits the number of comedians in a night and allows them the time to think on their feet and keep shows lively. He draws inspiration from his own teenage years in San Francisco frequenting comedy clubs, as well as the lively Berkshire comedy scene of the ’80s and early ’90s. The southern Berkshires were a hub, with venues like the Shaker Mill Tavern offering regular shows featuring Boston- and New York–based comedians.
Twenty years later, the dedicated comedy clubs have left, but other venues attempt to court the Berkshire comedy culture. The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield features comedy shows, including Rita Rudner on July 29, and houses Lewis’ Laugh Lounge series in The Garage, which offers Andy Sandford as the headliner for the upcoming June 8 show. The Washington, D.C., Comedy troupe the Capitol Steps has its ninth summer residency at Cranwell Resort, and Zip Stohr comedy shows appear occasionally at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
In south county, the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington is bringing back 2014’s Berkshire Comedy Festival. Its organizer, Paul Anthony, runs the Long Island Comedy Festival, now entering its 11th summer. He hopes to repeat that success in the Berkshires, saying, “Our goal is to expand it to other venues and make it a week-long festival.”
So far, confirmed for the August 6 festival are comedians Christine O’Leary, Bryan McKenna, and Rob Falcone.
Up north, this past winter’s High Mud Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, featured headliner Tig Notaro and was programmed by museum trustee and television producer Jay Tarses. The museum has regularly featured comedy shows over the years, and a day of comedy programmed by John Hodgman has been a hot ticket at the Solid Sound Festival, with performers like Jessica Williams and Reggie Watts. July 9, comedian Joe Pera will appear at the museum under the “High Mud Presents” banner.
High Mud brought in nearly 800 attendees, and the museum partnered with local bars and restaurants for after-hours comedy, which Lewis organized.
Meanwhile Brown and Lewis and comedian Dylan Carlino take turns hosting an open-mic night every Thursday. “The first Thursday is at Michael’s in Stockbridge with Dylan, the second is Tom’s mic at Dottie’s in Pittsfield, and then the third Thursday is mine in North Adams,” says Brown.
Lewis cautions that the Berkshire audience might be eager for comedy, but that doesn’t mean it will settle for just any old joke. It has standards.
“We have an audience in the Berkshires because there are other types of performance readily available,” says Lewis. “There are a lot of people with a sophisticated palate in the area, and I try to respect that as best I can. I use multi-syllabic words.”