Brian Breckenridge Is Building The North Texas Comedy Scene One Bar Show In Arlington At A Time.
Welcome to Humor Us, a new column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Brian Breckenridge wants comics to know that if you want to do a bar show right, you need to plan it carefully. And, as the man behind one of the consistently best comedy shows in the area, his advice is worth heeding.
Arlington’s Sunshine Bar, where Breckenridge books shows, has no windows. The exterior of the building actually has closed shutters covering sections of the brick wall — an affectation presumably intended to help clue you in on the name’s ironic meaning. In lieu of stools, office chairs surround an unusually low bar. It’s a cozy, proudly unpolished establishment, and the devotion of its many regulars testifies to its unique charm. Also worth mentioning: Once you move the Foosball table out of the performer’s nook, Sunshine Bar becomes one of the best comedy venues in DFW.
You can thank Breckenridge for that.
A comic himself, Breckenridge exhibits a laid-back, conversational confidence onstage. He mines big laughs from material that draws deeply from his personal beliefs and interests. He’s had success in comedy clubs and bar shows alike, and he’s helped connect DFW audiences with touring comics who tend to eschew the clubs. And now, after almost two years of booking shows at Sunshine Bar (an opportunity he all but stumbled onto but was smart enough to seize), he’s developed a keen sense of what it takes to make bar comedy thrive.
Below, we ask him to share some of the lessons he’s learned.
So how long have you been doing stand-up?
I’ll say about 8 years. I hate thinking about that sometimes.
Got any fun credits you’d like to share?
I was supposed to open for Jimmy “JJ” Walker [of Good Times fame] at Hyena’s in Arlington back when it was still open, but he dropped out at the last minute. They replaced him with Jerry Rocha, which was great, because he’s someone who’s always been a great cheerleader for young comics. So working with him ended up being awesome.
What can you tell me about your approach to writing and performing?
At first, I would do my written material verbatim, reciting every single word like I was performing a play. I didn’t have stage experience, so I thought that was the most logical approach. But your performance needs to come out naturally. So, after years of practice, after reciting everything onstage like a monologue, I started to just come up with ideas for bits, and would try to deliver them more organically. Instead of memorizing every word, I would just try to write down certain key words and phrases. What works for me is getting an idea, making sure I think it’s funny and fits my beliefs, and bringing it onstage.
Let’s talk about Sunshine Bar in Arlington. When did you start booking that room?
July will be our two-year anniversary, officially. The first show was the April before the July show. It was the owner’s wife who wanted to throw a show together. She just wanted to do a comedy show and said to her husband, who I already knew, “Brian does comedy, right?” They contacted me, I got some comics together and it just sort of happened — with no advertising. It was on a Tuesday night, it was last-minute and it started at 11. But it turned out to be a really good crowd, and a good show. From that I thought, “I have something here.” Bar shows, as you know, are very iffy. Most of them suck. It’s just hard to do them right. Sunshine just had these elements of a great crowd, a great intimate setup. It was a perfect space. Very little has to be changed for that to be a cool little bar comedy show. And the more I do them, the easier they get, because there is a following now.
You mentioned that your bar has a few natural advantages for a good bar show. But what kind of obstacles will a bar venue typically encounter? Do you know of any bar shows around the region that have had your longevity?
Most [bar shows] have been open mics that will occasionally try a show — but they’ve been watered down so much that no one expects a real show. That’s why I won’t do an open mic at Sunshine. It’s hard for bars, because comedy is best done in comedy clubs. But thanks to people like JT Habersaat and Doug Stanhope, and plenty of other comics, people are more familiar with seeing comedy in bars. The degrees of how well they can be done can be all over the place, due to a number of different variables. One reason some bar shows will happen and then quickly fade out is because there’s not an established link between the people who go to that bar and the person who books the show. I’m that link at Sunshine. I’m there all the time.
Can you explain how that helps for promoting shows?
I mean, I’ll just be there drinking, watching a game and people will ask me about upcoming shows. They’ll recognize me from an earlier show. They’ll have opinions about comics they saw. If I’m there and someone else starts talking about comedy, someone will tell them that I run comedy shows there. Word of mouth helps so much.
So beyond your shows, what would you say to someone who’s not a comic as far as finding local comedy shows?
Well, that’s the hard thing. Flyers are kind of a novelty now. They can see one if they go to a bar that allows them, or maybe if they go to record stores. People have to go find comedy. They either know a comic, so they know the comedy scene exists, or they’re a comedy nerd and they saw a local person open for a national act, and will follow [the local comic] on Facebook. That’s why I use Facebook as much as I can; it’s free advertising, and you can create events. I have a dedicated page, Blackbox Comedy, and I always direct people there because every comedy show we have will be on that page. The show’s never on a consistent Saturday of the month, but we have flyers and we have the Blackbox Comedy page. Facebook is the best thing — especially in DFW where we’re not the most artsy scene — just for getting people to care. In places like Austin, they flock to the art. They have so many comedy shows, and the crowds go to them. Here, it’s more of a challenge. It’s like, “Hey, come check out this comedy!” and maybe they will, if it’s free. Some shows have a cover charge, like $10 to $15 covers for an unproven cast. It could be good comics, but it’s unproven. Which, do it if you can, but the best way to get butts in seats is to make it free if you can. And I don’t demand too much of people where I feel bad if I don’t pay them; I give them free beer and a good bar show. It’s a fun time, and I always give comics 10 to 15 minutes each, and get them out of the five-minute open mic routine. And I can ask around to other comics I trust and see if someone’s ready for a 20 to 30 minute set. I feel like a AA ball club or something, just seeing who’s ready to develop. It’s a developmental bar show, but with already good comics. I probably just answered like five of your questions. [Laughs.]
I was actually about to ask how you select your acts, and your headliners.
I go from what I’ve seen — and I don’t get out as much as I like — or I’ll ask trusted comic friends, and see who I haven’t booked who would be good for 10 to 15 minutes. I’ve had some really good recommendations, and I’ll end up having them on multiple times. I’m just trying to give opportunities, have a good training ground for doing bigger and better stuff.
Do you think maybe DFW doesn’t have as many opportunities as the comedy scene might need?
When I started, there was a whole hierarchy of comics, and it was very established. These guys were opening or featuring at all the comedy clubs; some were so good that they were getting off-night headlining gigs. It was like a fraternity — it was mostly guys — who were going to move on to bigger and better things. And they did. But when they moved on, we might have lost that connection between the old guard and the younger comics. The younger comics looked up to the old guys, and the club knew those [more established] comics and went off their recommendations. But they’re all gone. And they’re not hanging around the clubs anymore. So there’s a disconnect between the clubs, and the comedy scene at large. There are still plenty of comics who get an opening, but there was such a bigger connection, and we lost that when a lot of really good comics went to LA and New York. There needs to be a liaison. The comics are all about doing comedy, and bookers are all about their business. There’s not enough motivation to cultivate newer, younger comics. There’s still some, but when I started it was more robust — more guest spots, more opportunities. It’s artists trying to connect with a business, and that’s just oil and water. [Laughs.]
Do we need more bar shows?
If they’re done well. Some bars can be too big, some can have absolutely no stage. Sunshine doesn’t have a stage, but the setup still works because there are multiple levels in the bar, and it’s easy to get the audience positioned to see the comics. There are a lot of factors. Is the bar in a known location? Is it easy to get to? What kind of clientele already frequents that bar? What’s great about Sunshine is that it’s a very mixed demographic. Young and old, all races and backgrounds, orientations. A lot of artistically diverse people go through Sunshine, and that’s why I keep my lineup diverse, because it fits the audience. Not everyone’s going to love every comic, but they’ll see a few they really enjoy. If you get a bar that’s too homogenized, it can hurt. We couldn’t do a comedy show at an all Spanish-speaking bar… well, not unless we got all Spanish-speaking comics. Hey, that could be interesting to see! I won’t understand it, but it would be unique. [Laughs.]
Let’s talk a bit about your upcoming shows. Your next two shows have headliners from Austin, correct?
Yes. We have Chris Tellez on May 21. He’s from Dallas and moved to Austin, and has just been killing it since then. He was on Moontower Comedy Festival, and he’s done shows in LA. Then, on June 3, we have JT Habersaat, who I’ve worked with seven or eight times now. He’s here as part of a national tour he runs, the Punk Altercation Tour, which goes mostly to bars like Sunshine and punk rock venues. There’s a real connection between punk rock and stand-up, I think. Just after high school, I had a friend in Grand Prairie who had access to a warehouse space, and we’d put on DIY punk shows there. I wasn’t in a band, but I had a car. I helped my friends’ bands move equipment, and I’d watch. It was about as DIY as you can get. I learned from those experiences that if you want to get something done, you have to do it yourself. I didn’t have that mentality when I started comedy; I was just trying to figure out how to do comedy. But seeing how much trouble I was having, and realizing all the sacrifices you have to make to get into the clubs — hanging out late, maybe drinking too much — things kind of all aligned with Sunshine. Maybe I could have gotten an in if I didn’t know the owner [of Sunshine], eventually. But I just happened to move to Arlington six years ago, happened to know the owner. I already knew people who would hang out there, so it just aligned. I got very lucky with Sunshine. But all the things that worked with Sunshine [would work elsewhere]. I always tell people, “Hey, if you’re gonna book a comedy bar show, it needs to meet certain criteria.”
That’s what we talked about before, right? Getting to know the owners, knowing the crowd, being able to promote…
If a comic walks into a bar and sees a stage, then immediately asks the manager on duty about booking a show, it’s probably not gonna go too well — just because there’s no real link between the person who’ll be promoting the show and the clientele. You want to know the regulars. A bar show has to be done carefully if you want it to be done right.
Do you travel to do comedy?
I’ve been to Austin a few times, but I’m just not able to get out as much as I’d like. But Austin’s a lot of fun. They have so many shows and opportunities. I’m jealous of how Austin can sustain so many shows. You have comedy clubs here where you can get hired to work, but some of our club slots are going to Houston and Austin comics now. Maybe we just need time to establish a new hierarchy, and build up that next tier of comics. Seeing “Funniest Comic in Texas” go away hurt. The usual suspects would end up winning, but there’s nothing wrong with that, because they’re some of the best comics around. As much as I’m not a fan of comedy contests, the best of the best tended to be in that final round. But they’ve apparently stopped doing it, which seems like another symptom of the disconnect between this giant talent pool of comics with the five full-size clubs and two smaller clubs [in the region]. Technically, there’s seven clubs — and we’re still not a comedy destination. We have headliners that come through, but they just seem to cycle through for years. The saddest thing is looking at comedy club calendars and seeing familiar names and thinking “Is this 2008?” [Laughs.]
So what’s a good way for a comic to hurt their chances of getting booked? How can you cost yourself opportunities?
Being too vocal about your opinion — like, in the club, where people can hear you. Even on Facebook, people are going to see it. In 2016, what you say on Facebook affects you as a human being in the non-digital world. Criticizing a show unfairly, or in a gossipy kind of way, can really hurt you. Even if you’re good! Having a shitty attitude can hurt. As a new comic, just go onstage as much as you can, take in other people’s opinions so you can develop yours, but be careful broadcasting what you think, because it can find some ears, even on Facebook or Twitter.
So Facebook’s a good way to find out about upcoming shows, and a good way to ruin your comedy career.
Oh yeah. That’s what’s great about meltdowns now — that they can be documented and screencapped. You can see it and tune in live. Before, you had to be in the right place and right time, and even then it just becomes conjecture and hearsay. But now it’s all documented. Even if you delete it, you never know if someone screencapped it!
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