Big Sky a distant planet in comedy universe
Steve Nordahl, owner of Lone Peak Brewing and Taphouse, started bringing in comedy shows two and a half years ago. He described the inception as a bit of a selfish desire; he likes going to comedy clubs on vacations, and wanted to bring that type of entertainment to Big Sky.
Nordahl figured Big Sky is a vacation destination for people from a multitude of places and backgrounds. They appreciate the craft of stand up comedy. It took the brewery venue a couple of years to get the advertising locked in for the shows. They ran radio and print ads and used this time to further develop their social media presence. The first show was well received and it seemed like this form of entertainment was appreciated in town. It sold out easily and the same crowd kept coming back for more.
“A lot of people were anticipating something,” Nordahl said. “Everyone that came to the shows were like, ‘Man, I wish more people knew about this.’”
The brewery ran five or six shows for four to six weeks in the winter. It proved difficult to continue in the summer primarily because it stayed light out so much later and the town had so many other activities going on. Shows had to start at 9 p.m. and go until 11 p.m. to provide for a night-club-venue-like-feel. This ended up being too late for many people, especially if a commute was involved in coming to see the show.
Bottom line: While there was laughter galore, the comics did not significantly increase drink sales and profits for Lone Peak Brewing.
“It’s really, really expensive to bring comedians here,” Nordahl says. “(We) spend a crap ton of money to basically break even.”
The comedians have to be paid for their talent, travel and hotel expenses and with people not purchasing many beverages, the budget gets a little tight. Nordahl will start doing shows in the winter again, hoping the success and enthusiasm from the previous winter shows carries through.
Some of the comedians the brewery showcased were from a booking agency David Tribble runs called Entertainment Solutions. Tribble has booked around 350 comedians in runs throughout the Northwest and most commonly in smaller, remote areas like Big Sky.
Tribble’s goal is to make circuit comedy cost-effective for night clubs in rural areas. His booking business, and the name of his website, is fondly called TribbleRuns by various comedians it represents. This name encapsulates the idea of several one-night comedy shows being performed by comedians in the Northwest that are linked together and called “runs.”
Generally, comedians on these runs travel great and ridiculous distances to do shows in remote areas that would otherwise not be exposed to any sort of stand up comedy. Doing circuits like this is the most sustainable way for small communities to provide comedy shows. The towns can afford it because it is just a one-night show, comedians can afford it because they are getting paid for multiple shows on these runs, and the venues can afford it because they are only sponsoring one performer at a time.
Tribble put together a list of what to do and not to do for circuit comedy in rural areas as part of his plan to make these circuits more widespread. He included elements such as how to do lighting, sound, charge a cover and explain why the audience needs to be quiet during the show. Attending stand up comedy is not like going to a concert, a ballet or a play. Audience members need to be completely focused on what the performer is saying in order to catch all the nuances and subtleties. A cover charge buys some respect from the patrons and makes them serious about what they are watching.
“The best way to get people to listen is to charge a cover charge,” Tribble emphasizes.
Tribble’s list also comments on what comedians need to do with their material when visiting rural areas. The material does not need to be changed, but the approach and delivery of it should be modified depending on the location.
“I learned to take the same bit and adjust it according to the audience,” Tribble says. “How you handle politics in Salt Lake and Denver is a lot different from how you would handle it in Bozeman.”
As is true for most entertainment forms, the reaction of the audience is extremely important. A big difference for comedians is that they need to get a decent read on their audience before the show starts to decide how they are going to swing their jokes to the crowd.
Ryan Wingfield certainly understands this concept and uses it frequently in his work. Wingfield performed in March 2018 at Lone Peak Brewing and has worked with Tribble for years. His show was part of a four night run through areas in Montana and Idaho. Originally from Alaska, Wingfield got his degrees in journalism and visual communications and when he was not finding the right passion for careers in either of those fields he looked elsewhere.
“My parents encouraged me to follow my childhood dream in stand up comedy,” says Wingfield.
Now, he has been doing live comedy shows for 13 and a half years. Growing up in Alaska, there was not a thriving comedy scene, but Wingfield saw a Comedy Central show in the second grade and was inspired to get into the laugh business.
In high school, he found that his public speaking abilities came naturally and when he moved to Boise and found a comedy club there—now called Liquid Planet—this gave him the platform to begin his career. Still, Boise was not the best place for comedy given its isolation from larger cities.
“(It's the) smallest a city can get while having an established club,” Wingfield says.
Despite these remote beginnings, Wingfield went to perform in numerous venues. His talent brought him to cruise ship shows in the Mediterranean, through a dozen countries, and gave him the opportunity to perform at a U.S. naval base in Japan. Before his kids were born, he would travel 50-60,000 miles a year to get to various shows. TribbleRuns helped immensely in this regard as it allowed him to do multiple shows, which made all the traveling worthwhile.
Going through a variety of towns and cities in smaller areas lends itself to some pretty unusual crowds and, therefore, some fairly comical stories. As Tribble mentioned, it is the delivery and not the content that is changed from one place to another. Wingfield tries to get a read of the audience to decide how much they can handle and additionally how to present his jokes. He generally has two hours worth of material and has to decide, “which block do I want to do in which order and if something is not working, I skip to another block.”
Wingfield is confident in the humor of his material—even if the audience seems to be a little mellow on any given night.
“A lot of my material I’ve stage tested enough that if the audience isn’t laughing I know it’s not me,” Wingfield says.
When asked to tell his most bizarre war story from the road, Wingfield laughed and said, “which one to pick from?”
Two seemed to stand out the most, the first taking place in rural North Dakota. Wingfield was asked to do a show at a college and with good reason expected college-aged students to be in attendance. Five hours before he arrived he was informed that the ages may be more along the high school spectrum. Wingfield assumed it was a sort of orientation event and felt confident in his ability to target his material to that crowd.
Then, when Wingfield arrived, he found out it was actually a weekend retreat for junior high students—12 year olds. This was way off base from what he originally expected and remembered exclaiming to the people in charge, “Just so you know, I have not prepared for 12 year olds!” He had only an hour to reshape his show and, “It all worked out, but for that hour I was in a complete panic,” he remembers.
In 2007, Wingfield and another comedian were doing a run in a mining community in Canada. This place was essentially the center of three different mining towns and Wingfield describes the locals like this: “redneck-y Canadians.”
The whole town gave Wingfield and another comedian an anxious vibe and the feeling of not wanting to stay the night. The other comedian was really unnerved by the whole scene, so Wingfield agreed to drive through the night to make it to their next destination.
As uncomfortable and stressful as these types of situations may be at the time, they certainly make for both humorous stories and satisfied crowds.
“Sometimes in the small, remote towns you get the best shows because they appreciate you so much,” Wingfield comments. Even if it’s a group of 12 year olds you had not prepared for or a bunch of redneck Canadians in a place that has a stabbing now and again, you are able to get something out of the show because the people really want you to be there.
Comedy now is certainly different than it was at its height in the 1970s and ’80s. While live shows have gone down, mediums like Netflix, YouTube and Comedy Central give modern comedians a way to continue to perform.
Wingfield describes the decline in live comedy as, “a little disheartening, but I think comedy will always be around.”
It is an extremely accessible form of entertainment and it seems like people continuously need more laughter to get through each day. Comedy has a place. It just needs to find venues where everyone comes out ahead—the audience, the comedians and the bar or club owners.
“I’m just trying to perform and have fun doing it,” says Wingfield, adding, “and make a little money along the way.”