Bakersfield may not be known for its comedy, but to comedian Chris Flail, it might only be a matter of time before we get recognized for a different kind of “Bakersfield Sound”: one with a punchline.
“Maybe,” Flail said, “we could get our own little comedy twang out here.”
For decades, our local stand-up comedy scene has been quietly bustling under the surface, usually overshadowed by our city’s musical exports.
But the same foundational elements of hard work and hard times that weathered some of our city’s greatest artists into fine creative marble didn’t miss our comedians, imbuing them with the same soul and powerful — almost stubborn — individuality.
Especially now, according to Flail, who compares Bakersfield to an early hot-bed city for comedy.
“In the '80s and '90s, all these huge heavy-hitters from the Boston comedy scene sprung up. They all had their own different style because there wasn’t a big machine telling them how to do it. There wasn’t that pressure to be a certain way; you could develop into your own person. That’s a lot of what’s happened here in Bakersfield.”
One factor that might attribute to the Rise of the Bakersfield Comic has to be the belated advent of stable venues where comedians — from the novice to the veteran— can congregate and perform. Imagine: What kind of music scene would we have if there weren’t any venues? To paraphrase “Jurassic Park," survival would find a way, but it would suck.
At the time of this writing, there are at least four stand-up comedy open mics happening every week: Mondays at Jerry’s Pizza (offering an all-ages forum for under-18 comedians), Tuesdays at the Green Room, Wednesdays at Temblor Brewing Co. and Thursdays at Rocket Shop Cafe. Flail has been hosting the Temblor Brewing comedy open mic for a little over a year.
“It doesn’t feel like an open mic at all,” Flail said. “It feels like a real show where people can get up and workshop their best material and see what it does for a crowd of people who are just out there to see comedy. The comedy crowd is usually great. They’re engaged, they’re students of it, they like watching the process.”
“You get to watch somebody who’s afraid to touch the microphone stand ... and you watch (that) somebody shake their way through it; they get the excitement and the buzz of it. Then, you see them a year later and they look like a veteran up there.”
Every few months, Temblor hosts a comedy showcase and also an annual “Comedy Royal Rumble” that crowns one comedian every year (with a wrestling belt, natch). Fresno-based comedian Tony Le was this year’s winner.
Flail, 31, is a late-starter to the stand-up game himself, even though he spent a large part of his youth in Pennsylvania studying the craft, dissecting and poring over comedy specials with which he’d fallen in love.
“I was a 130-pound kid with a unibrow when I was 16,” Flail said. “I had to be funny if I was going to work my way into anything.”
“You get to a point where you’re comfortable owning your shortcomings and things you feel vulnerable about, because it’s tough to make it interesting when you’re awesome.”
His first time on stage wasn’t until he was 27 in bars in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, maneuvering through their local meat-grinder comedy scenes. Soon after, he moved to Bakersfield to work as a land negotiator while performing on the side whenever he could, honing his craft, and apparently inheriting our town’s impressive way of using itself as the butt of the joke.
“When you grow up in northeastern Pennsylvania, you wanna live out in California,” Flail said. “For whatever reason, it’s a dream we all have. I always say, ‘Bakersfield’s close enough.’”
Temblor Brewing has been hosting some top-shelf comedians over the last few years and Flail has had the opportunity to open for a few of them, including Al Madrigal, Pablo Fransisco, Joey Diaz (“the strongest crowd reaction I’ve seen a crowd make for somebody. It was unbelievable.”) and, most recently, Dave Attell.
“I’ve been very really lucky in town here,” Flail said. “Comedy is such a unique thing: You don’t have to be doing it for very long and you can be surrounded by the best in the world (that) do it. It’s like if I started playing basketball again and (suddenly) have a scrimmage with LeBron James.”
People, lately, have been using comedy to make sense of everyday life; turning to comedians to get their daily news, even when comedians themselves, such as Louis CK and Bill Cosby, are sadly part of it.
It was one of the topics we talked about in our phone interview just 14 hours before the sexual misconduct allegations against Louis CK were made public.
“The Louis thing hit home and hit hard, especially, because we were just talking about that,” Flail said in a second phone interview. “He had a special in 2007 (titled 'Shameless.' Oof.) that I used to watch every night before I went to bed, before I had cable. I outlined the entire thing as if I was doing a seminar course on it and I kinda followed him the whole way since.”
“It’s good to have this all out in the daylight, just to know, kind of, the way that the industry has operated for a while. To see some of the things that some female comedians have gone through is something that I wouldn’t be able to fathom. Hopefully, female comedians on the come-up will have less of this to deal with.”
“It’s as important a time as ever to have the social commentary that comedy can do, out there on the forefront."
Comedy open mics:
Mondays: Jerry’s Pizza, 1817 Chester Ave.; sign-up 6:30 p.m.; hosted by Justin Brown; all-ages
Tuesdays: The Green Room, 1718 Chester Ave.; sign-up 7:30 p.m.; hosted by Andrew Boydston; 21 and over
Wednesdays: Temblor Brewing Company, 3200 Buck Owens Blvd. Unit B; sign-up 6:30 p.m.; hosted by Chris Flail; 18 and over
Thursdays: Rocket Shop Cafe, 2000 S. Union Ave.; sign-up 6:30 p.m.; hosted by Jay Beezy; 18 and over
All are free admission and start 30 minutes after sign-ups. Even though some of these open mics might be all-ages or 18 and over, mature content will be involved and audience discretion is advised. Further inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bringin’ the Funny Comedy Tour, featuring Michael Jr., 7 p.m. Friday at Valley Bible Fellowship, 2300 E. Brundage Lane. Pre-sale tickets: $15 (for groups of 10 or more), $20, $30 for early entry (6 p.m.), $45 VIP, includes earlier entry (5:15 p.m.), seating in a reserved section and a Q&A with Michael Jr.; at the door, add $5 to each ticket price; ticketfly.com; 325-2251.
And now for something completely different. Well, sort of.
Dallas-based comedian Michael Jr. is currently on his Bringin’ the Funny Comedy Tour, but he’s not hitting the usual venues one might think of: he’s performing in churches nationwide. This Friday, he’ll be visiting Valley Bible Fellowship.
Based on his 2017 comedy special, “Laughing on Purpose,” he’s less of a “Christian comic” than a comic who happens to be Christian. He freely reference Scripture and his topics involve spirituality, family life and church with a casual, everyman demeanor. His routine is clean, interactive and family-friendly but mainly aimed at adults, sometimes with a wink.
To comedy fans who might blanch at the notion of catching a comedy show in a church: hey, funny is funny. You can catch his performances on YouTube to see if his material jibes with your sensibilities. Also, is VBF really a worse venue than some of the sketchy places you’ve had to go to catch a comedy show? Besides: no two-drink minimum.
For some people, heading out to catch a secular stand-up comedy show isn’t really an option. It’s cool to see that, here, the funny is being brought to them. Hey … I get the tour name now. That’s funny!