No one expects to see a child on the Improv Shop’s stage on a random Monday night. That’s usually reserved for veteran stand-up comedians Rafe Williams and Bobby Jaycox, the hosts who banter before inviting dozens of people to try their hand at making St. Louisans laugh during the venue’s popular open-mic night.
But tiny Brooklyn is determined to make her Improv Shop debut, standing next to her grandfather Williams as he welcomes the crowd to the dark room. She first clings tightly to his hand before turning her back on the audience, very obviously over the experience, which sends everybody into giggles.
Brooklyn may not be a regular stage performer, but the earnest applause for her efforts is emblematic of the support that St. Louis comedians offer one another — something that’s benefitting the region in a big way. Thanks to collaboration across comedy disciplines and venue types, St. Louis has been gaining a reputation as a breeding ground for funny talent in recent years.
Similar to the local music scene, the rise of comedy in St. Louis culture has been DIY from entertainers intent on showcasing talent while nurturing the business side of things. People have hustled to write and book shows, to connect veterans and newcomers and to broaden the definition of what “comedy” means. Now, theatres, bars, clubs and pop-up spaces throughout the St. Louis region host standup, improv and sketch comedy nightly, growing their customer base while adding to their alcohol revenue.
In other words, Zach Gzehoviak thinks, it’s exactly the right time for a large, homegrown comedy festival to take off.
“There’s been such growth and activity in comedy,” Gzehoviak says. “I always thought that it would be cool to start a comedy festival, and it was something that I could see St. Louis embracing. But I didn’t really see it being practical and realistic until we had this great community.”
Gzehoviak is the co-founder and president of the Flyover Comedy Festival, a three-day, multi-venue comedy event that highlights local and national comedic talent. Now in its third year, the annual event takes place throughout the Grove.
“There were a couple of false starts,” says Gzehoviak, who had considered creating a festival for almost a decade, even printing up business cards back in 2011. “I wanted to do this, but I really didn’t have the knowhow or the logistics or venues [yet].”
Though comedic giants have had ties to St. Louis — Redd Foxx, Cedric the Entertainer, Phyllis Diller, Greg Warren, Nikki Glaser and the Sklar Brothers all have roots here — it wasn’t until The Improv Shop opened its doors in the Grove in 2016 and gave Gzehoviak a supportive home base that the festival could become a reality. The Grove neighborhood itself has seen a boom in the last decade, with plenty of new restaurants, clubs and housing options settling in alongside longtime businesses. This variety led the neighborhood to become the perfect spot for the festival, allowing Flyover attendees to move from space to space to enjoy festival entertainment without having to hop into a car. In addition, the Grove Community Improvement District contributed funding, so the show could go on without the previous stress of tracking down financial support.
“With these new spaces, talent has grown. We have a greater number of people working hard at comedy,” Gzehoviak says.
And those people are trying their hand at every type of comedy style, it seems. In other cities, Gzehoviak says, comedians often stick to what they do best; a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles might not delve into improv, for example. But because St. Louis entertainers are eagerly building a fuller comedy culture together, comedians straddle disciplines here. Throughout the entire St. Louis region, there are plenty of avenues for writing sketches, performing improv, recording shows for digital platforms and doing standup at venues of every size, as well as opportunities to train during classes and open-mic nights, like at the Improv Shop.
“You’ve had improvisers taking a greater interest in stand-up, and stand-up taking a greater interest in improv right here in the city. I just think between improv and stand-up, the number of independent shows and the venues, comedy has grown from when I first moved here,” says Gzehoviak, who had attended Webster University and moved to St. Louis from Connecticut. “There were a couple of shows a month when I first got here. Now there are several open-mics during the week and many independent shows being produced.”
“I mean, almost any night of the week you can go out and see it. And it didn’t used to be that way,” he adds.
While St. Louis has always had its fair share of comedic talent, local comedy as a worthwhile entertainment choice has especially taken off lately, egged on by a general appetite for the comedy specials on cable channels and Netflix as well as the rise of podcasts and digital platforms. Nationally, comedy club revenue increased by 16.8 percent from 2013 to 2018.
That explosion in interest is partially why the Flyover Comedy Festival finally came to fruition in 2017. Developing the event with a board of other entertainers, Gzehoviak wasn’t expecting a win right out of the gate. The inaugural event hosted 62 performances, but Gzehoviak was worried about attendance.
“We didn’t know if St. Louis would show up. I just thought, ‘Please have 20 people here,’ and on the day-of, our first show was packed.”
Attendance at the festival nearly doubled during the second year, and the number of audition tapes Gzehoviak received from comedians interested in performing increased from 130 to 310. And now for the first time, judges from Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival will be in St. Louis to review comedians for its New Faces lineup. As the world’s biggest comedy festival, Just for Laughs can be a significant milestone for a comedian’s career, acting as a launching pad for many artists.
Gzehoviak hopes that by providing career opportunities and exposure, the Flyover Comedy Festival can help create a pathway for comedians in St. Louis to make a viable living — something almost unheard of just ten years ago. But local comedians — like Rafe Williams, who’s set to release a new comedy album on a tastemaker label, and Libby Higgins, whose YouTube sketches get hundreds of thousands of views — increasingly are forging big opportunities both in town and around the nation. They’re not shy about helping newer entertainers, either.
“If you’re creative enough and you’re promoting yourself in today’s world of social media, you’ll get the exposure you need,” Gzehoviak says. “Comedy festivals also become networking events for comedians, so we’re stepping up our industry presence to provide more opportunities to everyone in the festival, both local and traveling.”
“If we can have an actual influence on careers in the city, that’s when I know the festival is a success,” he says.