Emerging comics hone their craft at Sacramento’s DIY venues

Joey Stults performs at Corner House Comedy in Tahoe Park on May 16. Photo by Steve Martarano

By Nick Lozito

It’s hard to tell whether the Sacramento comedian is in his stage persona as he flips dozens of hot dogs before a Friday night show in a Curtis Park garage, gleefully whipping his head side to side while entertaining guests. Maybe this isn’t an act. Maybe this is the real Mike Nordstrom.

Then again, who stops mid-set to ask a photographer if he has ketamine in his pocket? Or wears a brown tie that, as Nordstrom admits on stage, “Is way too short and much too wide.”

About 15 minutes later, reeking of hot dog juice, Nordstrom plops on a chair beside the stage. With heavy satisfaction, the 25-year-old scans the packed audience in this makeshift club.

Not too bad,” he whispers, nodding his head, before the host calls his name.

Stage time is paramount for young or emerging comics to hone their craft. Nordstrom is part of a renegade group of Sacramento stand-up comedians who are turning garages, backyards and parking lots into pop-up shows in hopes of joining a slew of locals who have broken onto the national stage.

Josh Davis, a 24-year-old bartender at a downtown restaurant, hosts Stand-up Sesh with his roommates in their Curtis Park garage. Their patio serves as a green room for comics, some who will perform tonight and others just looking to network. Davis, a Rio Americano High School graduate, promotes on social media, sells tickets online and reveals the venue hours before the show. 

A sandwich board in his driveway directs patrons through a side yard with Stand-Up Sesh merchandise. Comedy fan Joe Zarzycki learned about the show on Reddit. The Detroit native mingles with Dave Supan, whose wife learned of the show from a coworker. Gabby Hernandez and two of her friends drove from Fairfield after searching for comedy shows on the internet. A group of film majors at Sacramento State, classmates of Davis, are supporting their friend.

“For a long time it was about corporate clubs,” said Sacramento comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, who has taught stand-up comedy for 15 years and lectures about the artform at UC Davis. “There was nowhere to do standup. A few bar nights in the ’burbs. Now I feel we are an awesome town for DIY shows.”

Chey Bell performs at Corner House Comedy in Tahoe Park on May 16. Photo by Steve Martarano

Lowell Jensen helped host a longtime Wednesday night show at Luna’s in Midtown Sacramento, but the cafe shuttered after 40 years last summer. Early in his career, the comedian went through day jobs at “an alarming rate,” not wanting to settle into a career that took his creativity away from comedy.

“When you’re new, every set is precious,” says Lowell Jensen, who recalls “bombing my ass off” while telling an elaborate, 5-minute story at Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento. “So when one set doesn’t go well, it hurts. There’s not the same stewing after you’ve done so many sets.”

Lowell Jensen performed his recent special, “What I Was Arrested For,” at The Sofia theater in Midtown. The comic’s favorite room in Sacramento is Punch Line in the Arden-Arcade area. The club opened in 1991 and recently added an adjacent room, the Callback Bar, for smaller shows. Other clubs include The Comedy Spot in Midtown and STAB! Comedy Theater on Broadway. 

JR De Guzman and Kiry Shabazz are the latest local comics to break out nationally. Shabazz has performed on “The Tonight Show.” De Guzman, who took classes from Lowell Jensen over a decade ago at The Comedy Spot, now tours nationally. The UC Davis graduate recently sold out Crest Theater, using two rising local comics, Robert Omoto and Becky Lynn, as openers.

“I’ve been wrong,” Lowell Jensen said of talent. “I’ve seen comics where I don’t know if they have it, but they turn out to be killers. I’ve seen others who take a few years to find their voice.”

Headliner Wyatt Cote performs at Corner House Comedy in Tahoe Park on May 16. Photo by Steve Martarano

At a backyard show in Tahoe Park, Melissa McGillicuddy works off some rust. 

“I have been lazy,” admits the co-producer of a roving, monthly pop-up show called Moving Van Show. McGillicuddy is preparing for a weekend gig at Laughs Unlimited, and turns her back to the audience to scream the show information through her microphone to the surrounding community. “The whole neighborhood gets to hear our dick jokes,” she cracks.

Luke Soin, a Sacramento State graduate, has hosted Corner House Comedy for three years. He promotes his shows on social media and said most of the tickets “sell at the last second.” Soin hasn’t gotten complaints from neighbors, though McGillicuddy might end that streak. One neighbor is in her 90s, and Soin has smelled marijuana from another house, which he takes as a good sign for not reporting noise complaints. A few neighbors even attend his shows, where the stage is underneath a pergola adorned with red and blue lights. Comics sprawl across his lawn, the greenest of green rooms.

Wyatt Cote, a Los Angeles comedian, uses the “low-risk environment” of a pop-up show to craft new material. He will be performing with McGillicuddy at Laughs Unlimited, which opened in 1980. “Worse case, if I bomb, I won’t be invited back to this guy’s backyard,” Cote jokes.

McGillicuddy has performed for nine years, but the auditor says “nobody at my day job knows.”

Her Moving Fan Show has made stops at Land Park Amphitheater, McKinley Park and The Red Museum in Midtown. She also produces Queermedians, an LGBTQ stand-up show. 

“You can do a comedy show anywhere,” McGillicuddy said after her hosting duties. “If you find your audience, you can create your own opportunities.”

This story was funded by the City of Sacramento’s Arts and Creative Economy Journalism Grant to Solving Sacramento. Following our journalism code of ethics and protocols, the city had no editorial influence over this story and no city official reviewed this story before it was published. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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