In 2005, I had the great fortune of accompanying a couple of friends, Marilyn and Don McCorkell, to Edinburgh, Scotland, venue for the Fringe Festival: the great arts, performance, music and book conclave. Some call the Fringe the world's greatest art festival. The confab is a 25-day affair with tens of thousands of visitors from across the planet and performing groups, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists from over 50 countries. And the festival features about ten thousand acts, including an unusually intense bevy of comedians -- again, from all over the world.
I remember going to a pub late one night during my festival stay and hearing a particularly compelling Irish comic. He was hilarious. He started by picking on me, since I was at the front of the audience. He asked where I was from. When I said Tulsa, Okla., he said I looked too young to be a part of what he called the "great prairie roil and chaos" -- he was of course, referring to the Tulsa '21 riot. I was astonished! He went on to his scripted performance: relating how he had been to Las Vegas recently as part of a global comedy engagement. He said he was sitting in his hotel room, prior to his starting night's performance when he saw, for the first time, an American drug commercial. He said the TV spot was one of the most amazing things he had ever seen -- it was filled, he said, with dancing people and happy music: a transfixed and laughing crowd traversing a huge green meadow filled with flowers and a voiceover about a magical drug that could, according to the spot's narrator, work wonders for you. Then the spot narrator said that the "wonder therapy" might also produce severe pains in your feet, projectile vomiting, extremely labored breathing and other maladies that might lead to a quick death.
The place erupted in laughter -- and I gained a unique perspective on how truly ridiculous America's often-simultaneous engagement with drug promotion and safety concerns looked to outsiders. The Irish guy's piece -- a 15-minute stand-up performance -- was an enchanting lesson on how comedy can be an electrifying portal, a kind of neon-framed window that can give us freakish detachment
Development and The Laugh Track
American downtowns are typically filled with a wild mix of activities and enterprises. Early 21st-century downtowns, unlike the days of old when retail, back office, and finance dominated a city's downtown, are much more varied and kinetic places. And Tulsa is highly representative of this grand transformation: 21st-century downtowns, in healthy cities, are a fluid ecology of restaurants, high density residential spots, entertainment spaces and outfits of every description, athletic facilities, art/museum warrens and new wave parks -- and this is certainly the new vista we are witnessing in Tulsa.
Courtesy of Jason Sperry
For the last seven years we've seen an amazing economic, artistic, and social renaissance in our central business district.
A lot of the new activity in Tulsa's downtown is spawned by the Bank of Oklahoma Arena facility, a world-class operation that has revenue and traffic comparable to any facility of its kind in the U.S.; the new downtown baseball park; and an explosive array of restaurants and entertainment shops of every kind. The new Woody Guthrie Center, the Philbrook satellite museum, Living Arts of Tulsa, the Tulsa Artists Coalition, and Gilcrease Museum's downtown operations, the Jazz Hall of Fame, 108 Contemporary, and a range of smaller operations are all part of the arguably radiant landscape.
Interestingly, there's some chance that a brand new thrust -- one that has had a combustive impact, in a host of re igniting downtown cores, will come from comedians and comedy clubs.
A Startup Comic Shop
I talked to several comedians and performance art folks in the course of putting this essay together. Among them was Peter Bedgood, visual artist, performance guy, and standup comedian in very good standing. Bedgood has also been in several national television ad campaigns and appeared in several motion pictures. And I spoke to Herbert Gray, a fearless comic/educator who has performed in several north Tulsa venues, at the Hibiscus on Brookside, and at downtown's Greenwood Cultural Center. Bedgood, and Billy Bazar (that's his real name!), a promoter and comedy pro, served as my navigators to Tulsa's still-emerging comedy ecology.
Bazar told me that there was a small set of national, chain-like entities in town -- he named "Looney Bin" as exhibit A. These outfits feature nationally renowned comics who are on continuous tours. But Bazar and Bedgood told me their hopes and bets were on local spots & T-Town laugh entrepreneurs.
And there are prospects.
Existing comedy spots include Woody's corner bar in Tulsa's downtown, CJ Maloney's and Keels Lounge. But what's coming later this year is the long-awaited, "cinema-like," 75-seat Comedy Parlor, just down the way from S&J'S eatery in the Blue Dome district.
"The Comedy Parlor is in development currently," said Jason Watts, currently working toward opening that very venue. "It is looking to a mid-August or September opening. It will be a variety comedy theater, featuring stand-up, improv, and sketch."
He also said stated the obvious: that people like to laugh. Seems like a good business proposition, then.
"People enjoy comedy," he said. "There's a reason why we aren't opening 'The Tragedy Parlor.' But good comedians know that the best material comes from a sore spot or problem. Being able to see past that issue and to frame it in a way that allows others to see past it is the job of the comedian."
So the best comedy hurts a little.
In a piece to come, I look at what some comparative urban economics and the old strategy playbook might tell us about comedy and downtown futures.
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