Photo by Chris Casella & Rachael Barbash

Stage Left

At Hashtag Comedy’s Who Is Lying? live game show, the hot seat was burning for the first contestant when improviser Joe Moorer grilled him about his date, who was watching from the audience. “How long have you two been together?” Moorer asked. “About 27 minutes,” the contestant replied. Moorer advised the contestant not to come on too strong on the first date, unless it was a Tinder date. The contestant, hardly able to keep from cracking up himself, got the room roaring with laughter when he revealed that indeed, it was a Tinder date.

The premise of the game is simple: three comedians answer a trivia question, and a contestant from the audience guesses who is giving the real answer. It’s hilarious and just being there gives you a chance to win some prizes, but this show does something else your traditional comedy show doesn’t: it forces the audience to be active, rather than passive. The comedy relies on the audience’s contribution.

“The beauty of improv is that you really don’t have to know anything, and our job is to make you look like a rock star,” says Hashtag improviser Sarah Storer. Whether it’s pulling up people from the audience or planning shows around guest performers, Hashtag Comedy has a mission to mix up the traditional improv comedy setup. “It’s really important to us to collaborate with other artists because we have the perfect medium to do that. There are no parameters,” Storer says. “We can do whatever and just see what happens.”

With shows every single Wednesday at Shadowbox Live (and some special dates thrown in for good measure), Hashtag Comedy is constantly refreshing its show inventory. The whole point of improv is that there’s no script, so why stop with just one element of the unexpected? There’s no shortage of comedy in Columbus, so mixing up the form was vital for Hashtag’s growth because “in Columbus, it’s important to give them a reason to care.” By incorporating outside performers, Hashtag offers an experience that’s totally unique with every show. “We’ve collaborated with storytellers and hip-hop artists and musicians and trombonists and photographers—basically, if you have an art form, we’ll put you in a show and we’ll figure out something to do with it,” Storer says. “My dream one day is to get dancers and a painter up there while we do shit around them, and they just do their art.”

Besides scouring the audience for contestants or showcasing artists of different mediums, Hashtag also makes it possible for the community to get involved with improv. First, there’s the 8th Man Show, where Hashtag will “bring in a total stranger and add them to our troupe and make them look like a real life improv comedian for a night,” Storer says. Another program, called Girlprov, reaches out to female comedians and storytellers of all sorts to “celebrate improv and prove we can work with anyone and still be funny.” Storer adds that bringing in more funny women from the area, professional comedians or not, teaches the audience that “they’re not funny ‘cause they’re women; they’re just funny women.” Finally, anyone with a tiny bit of experience can sign up for the April 6 Hashtag Mania, where each Hashtag improviser is randomly assigned a team, and live text voting will decide which team reigns supreme.

Storer and the rest of Hashtag comedy are so passionate about getting community members involved in their shows that they’re willing to risk looking totally foolish to try something new. “I tell all of our guests that we will fall on our own sword a thousand times before we ever let them look like an idiot, and it allows them to just relax into what I call ‘their own weird.’”

Helping a non-comedian guest star find their own performance zone is also the challenge for Dan Montour of Monday Night Live, Columbus’s six-year-old live sketch show. Much like the Saturday Night Live we all know, MNL features a Columbus celebrity host at each of its monthly shows, regardless of that host’s comedy or performance background.

“We find someone interesting in the community, be it an artist, an entrepreneur, a civil leader—just a notable Columbus character,” Montour says, “and we build the show around their theme.” Whether that theme is the host’s career, some interesting fact about them, or a hidden talent, Montour says, “we play off the host’s strengths when we’re writing sketches and we keep it in mind if they don’t have a performance background.” Therefore, anyone can be the host, because the content and format of the sketches can be tailored to any experience level.

That’s not to say this is an easy task, however. The writing process begins with an initial meeting between the writers and the host.

“It’s a fun, exciting meeting because you’re riffing on parts of their life to see if there’s a sketch there,” Montour says. However, while Hashtag Comedy thrives on the ‘nothing is off-limits’ nature of improv comedy, MNL is a creative challenge for the sketch writers because of the different parameters each new host brings to the table. “The host has a theme, and there are things they’re not comfortable with and then their performance background, so it forces you to be more creative to write sketches that fit that host,” Montour says. Perhaps it’s this unique challenge that has kept seats full for the show, as MNL writers are constantly fine-tuning their skills.

At the second pitch meeting for the March 14th season opener, MNL writers come rolling into host Zach Reau’s dining room as soon as they can make it. Writer Zach Baird (there are three Zachs in the room, but a “Too Many Zachs” sketch is shot down) leads the meeting as reigning producer for the March show. The atmosphere at the meeting is a comfortable mix of riffing off one another, taking care of business, and polishing off a fresh pot of coffee. Reau, local HIV/AIDS advocate, educator, and social activist, mentioned to me that though he has no comedy background, he’s happy to use comedy as a teaching tool because it “makes it easier to relate tough concepts in an accessible way to a new audience.” When I ask MNL writer and performer Mike Kolar how the show supports new voices in comedy, he laughs and points out, “That’s just the thing, we’re an old voice.”

But between guest hosts and some changes in MNL’s creative process, there’s no doubt that new voices can grow though this show.

Change and growth are the themes at MNL at the moment. The show just moved to a bigger stage at Mikey’s Late Night Slice, and the leaders of MNL set some goals for higher performance quality. In response to these changes, the show has instituted another new element in its process: auditions.

“At this mid-life crisis point in the show, we decided to have auditions to lighten the workload and shake things up a little,” Montour said. “To achieve some higher goals we set, we would need to tighten our infrastructure, so we needed more people.” The response to the audition call was impressive, and MNL added a handful of new, eager cast members. That means there are new personalities to write for and showcase to the audience.

“You’re looking for moments with sketch more so than the narrative craft of storytelling, but you use visuals to create those moments. You can take audiences to your world much quicker with sketch,” says Montour. MNL is carving out its niche in the comedy scene, and in Montour’s eyes, Columbus affords the perfect set of opportunities to do so. Not only is Columbus a great fit for comedians economically, but the city offers, “lots of opportunities for comedians to perform at great venues.” But the city isn’t just its infrastructure. It’s also made up of the right audience. “People in Columbus have a great sense of humor, and they’re very smart and politically savvy, so they can hang with these clever nuances that we’re doing at MNL.”

Columbus standup veteran (and (614) cover boy) Dustin Meadows agrees. “Columbus is just a really cool place. It’s a comedy scene to be proud of and excited about because there’s enthusiasm from both sides—the performers and the audiences,” says Meadows. “I think the potential is all here, and that’s something we’re always trying to tap into.”

By consolidating all of his shows under one cohesive brand, Whiskey Bear Comedy, Meadows hopes to turn that potential into consistent quality entertainment for an audience that keeps coming back, thirsty for more.

A passion for pop culture is often what brings Whiskey Bear performers and audiences together. When Meadows chooses topics for Whiskey Bear shows, he reaches out to new audiences using their favorite things. Shows can draw a “non-comedy fan audience” by focusing on current or timeless figures in pop culture like Star Wars, Disney, or Batman. “I see it as a Venn diagram of things people are familiar with and things that comedians can stretch and explore in new and unexpected ways,” Meadows says.

Whiskey Bear recently launched its official webpage, and Meadows is hoping that brand recognition and an association with quality content can boost audience support for his next project: the Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival, which kicks off on May 12th. This is where inviting new voices to step up in Columbus comes in. While featuring local talent is a must, Meadows’ vision for the festival is to “bring in comedians from out of town, even if it ends up being sort of a ‘comedy summer camp’ where we’re just hanging out and having a laugh and meeting new people.”

“With its thriving arts scene, there seems to be no reason why Columbus can’t support an independent comedy festival like I’ve seen in Cleveland or Cincinnati,” Meadows wagers. His first step is gaining support through Whiskey Bear’s Indiegogo campaign. “With the way we’ve done the perks for donating, they almost all include tickets to the shows in the festival, and that guarantees that there will be an audience at the shows,” which lowers the financial risk the festival poses. In return, Columbus gets a major opportunity to see new performers instead of the same parade of faces at every local open mic. “By getting the community involved and selling tickets in advance,” Meadows says, “hopefully we can make it a good experience and the performers can leave with the thought of coming back to Columbus and being part of this network.”

Though Whiskey Bear hosts some stand-up showcases, Meadows assures, “We’re free to try as much different programming as possible.” Those programs, which are hosted by Mikey’s Late Night Slice every Monday night, include The Pop Culture Mixtape, where readings or performances revolve around one pop culture theme, a comedy show/hot dog eating contest, and comedic roasts of familiar pop culture characters.

It’s in the performance space above Mikey’s where The Roast of Cupid is happening, each roaster, from the Tooth Fairy to Pepe LePew (played by Montour from MNL), stretching their chops beyond standard stand-up. Meadows steers the performers away from traditional stand-up during these shows in favor of “a new avenue for comedic expression.” For one night, an unlikely batch of characters were allowed to exist in the same world and make fun of each other, and that’s what made the show such a hoot.

Though the performers would be hard-pressed to find another occasion to use the jokes they wrote for this one-off show, their efforts could never go to waste. Meadows explains, “People expected funny, and they got it. And a lot of people came up to me to tell me that. If someone makes the effort to tell a stranger ‘good job,’ that’s really sincere.”

Something in the comedy scene in Columbus is really working, then, especially when the audience welcomes performers of all levels to the stage with an open mind and a desire to laugh at something brand new.