How Wes Corwin’s DIY Approach to Comedy Has Led to Success, and Accidentally Running a Comedy Show in a Skinhead Bar.
Welcome to Humor Us, a 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.
With all of a two-week stint to his original run, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that Wes Corwin’s somewhat recent arrival in Dallas’ comedy scene was actually a return.
After his two week introduction to stand-up here, Corwin found his comedic footing during a four year stay in Austin. After Austin, he used his time living in Memphis to push himself to grow creatively, and change up how he approached writing. He’s come back to Dallas with the ability to move confidently between winking, off-kilter one-liners, and longer bits that prove he can wrangle even the most esoteric ideas into something sharp, relatable and deeply funny.
In an effort to both connect with Dallas’ stand-up scene and add to it, Corwin has run with an opportunity to host an open mic on Thursdays at Noble Rey Brewery. Taking on an open mic can be even dicier and less predictable than running a showcase, but after four months, he’s seen a big jump in comic participation, and consistent audience engagement. He’s also enjoyed a strong relationship with the brewery, and hopes to add to their comedy offerings in the near future.
I spoke with Corwin about the ups and downs of trying to book shows, his experiences in different scenes and what he thinks of Dallas’ current DIY scene.
How long have you run the open mic at Noble Rey Brewery?
How’s it going?
It’s going good. Considering the point where we started from, when it was a couple of comics, me and Kristin Stahlman, who’s great. I did a five-minute set, then she did a five-minute set, and I went back up and just had to work for 50 minutes while she played Street Fighter in the back. I’d say now that we’re in the teens in terms of people coming out [to perform], we’re growing, the venue loves seeing that growth. I feel pretty good about what we’re doing.
Is this the first open mic you’ve run?
Maybe I should start with asking if this is the first open mic you’ve run in Dallas.
Yes. I, for a very brief period of time, I lived in Dallas, when I started doing comedy. I was 19, was here over the summer, instead of going to UT Austin, was here for about two weeks, went up twice at Hyena’s, then left for Austin and did comedy, and that’s where I did all my learning on where you should and should not do comedy. So this is the first time I have run an open mic in Dallas. I had a showcase in an Indian restaurant for a weekend, and then I handed it off to Angel Rosales. That was Spice Pub. That was an adventure, that was a time.
That was here in the DFW area?
Murphy. That was an experience. My favorite thing was, the first night I did that — I got the gig through Craigslist — they were like, “Hey, we want bands…” dot-dot-dot. Then, “Also comedians?” [with a] question mark. That’s how that played out. And they said they’d have a stage area, they said they would install the stage area before the show. By the time I got there, they didn’t have a stage area. I was like, I don’t care – I had Mitchell Clemons and Jason James at the time – and I was like, we’ll just stand in the corner, it won’t be a problem. And then the owner was like, “Oh! We have this pot. We can turn it upside down and you can stand on the pot.” I was like, “I’m not gonna stand on…” “I’ll put the pot there for you.” So I’m standing in the corner, the pot is right there. I move to the corner, the mic is there, I stand in front of the pot, I tell my first joke, it gets a laugh, and I’m thinking okay, this gig is gonna go fine. After I tell the first joke, in the middle of the laugh, the owner walks in front of me and is like, “Are you gonna use the pot?” And when I said no, he reached down and took it and took it back. I don’t know if I offended him, or if he needed it for cooking, but that is how that played out.
How was the rest of your set without the pot?
Oh, a little deflated. I think they were excited about the pot, and it just never… What are you gonna do, y’know? A watched pot never gets a laugh. That’s why they had to take it offstage.
So this is your first time working an open mic in Dallas, but you’ve run them in other areas?
I’ve hosted mics before, I’ve hosted showcases. I used to run the Alpha Test Showcase at Tribe Comics and Games in Austin, I ran a show at a skinhead bar for a while…
That was an ordeal.
Was that in Austin?
That was in Bull McCabe’s. So I went to that venue, I ran the show with an Austin comic named Coy Hopper, and he was like, “It’s not a skinhead, it’s just a punk bar.” And then I talked to a punk musician I know, Will Prewitt, who is a fantastic musician, and I was like, “Hey, this isn’t a skinhead bar, right?” And he was like, “No, that’s absolutely a skinhead bar.” [Laughs.] And that’s after months of running it. But if I could defend myself, no one was ever there. It was one guy named Johnny behind the bar, just yelling all the time. My argument is, is it a skinhead bar if there’s no one inside of it? Because there was no skinheads, because there were no people. It was just comedians telling jokes to each other. And immediately after that interaction with Will, two guys came out with Super jackets, and they only heckled Yusef Roach, the only black person on the show. And at that point I was like, “No, let’s never do this again.” A lot of my lessons in comedy have been holding onto a stove too long and being like, “Oh, I shouldn’t do that anymore.” So yeah, running a skinhead bar showcase, that’s a thing I learned, to not do in the future.
I should pull back and say that one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was that you’re newer to Dallas, or at least less experienced here, but you’ve done comedy here, in Austin, and in Memphis, as far as being established in the scene…did I miss anything?
Austin, Memphis, and now here. Six years [total] in August.
Can you walk us through your path in comedy — just a quick sketch of what time you’ve spent where?
Hit the beats, gotcha. I spent my first four years in Austin, which is, well, I spent two weeks here, and that’s where I got a lot of footing. I met a lot of kind people. Mitchell Clemons was, I think, the first person to tell me I had any ability. It wasn’t, at the time – I don’t know if you remember your first mic, but my first time, anybody who got a laugh, I was like, “That dude is amazing!” People in Dallas are so talented. You see 30 people in a row and think, “That dude must be the king of the city! No that guy!” And Mitchell I absolutely loved, and after I went up the second time, he was sitting at a table to the side, and he was like, “Hey, you’re pretty good. How long have you been doing this?” And I was like, “Two weeks!” And he was like, “OK, what are you doing?” And I said, “I’m moving.” And he was super cool, but that’s about where the conversation ended. And then I went to Austin for four years. Austin’s probably one of the best cities to work and learn craft, because they’ve got three mics, you can go up and go up and go up. I’ve said this before on podcasts in Austin, and I continue to believe it, the hardest thing about doing comedy in any city is eventually you get to a skill level and they’re like, “Well, you’re still the same open micer you were when you started.” So it was great to get better. And then I moved to Memphis, and got to branch out a little bit. I stopped telling – I used to be very short joke-oriented, and I branched out a little bit. And now I’m here. The most exciting thing about being here right now is I feel like I’ve put enough time into this that I can go in any direction I want, and now it’s just a matter of figuring out what I want to do. Right now that’s talking about Sumerian creation myths for five minutes, but I’m sure I’ll figure something else out.
Can we talk about how running an open mic is different than trying to run a showcase?
It is a much lighter touch. First of all, the most difficult thing about running a mic – and I’m sure you can speak to this too, as an open mic host – is when you’re running a showcase, the audience is ideally there intentionally. There’s that element of, “Oh, the show is starting, that’s so exciting!” When you start an open mic, two-thirds of the people are surprised, and the other two are irritated because they thought they were just going to sit in a bar quietly. So you have to turn up the charm, you have to turn up the charisma. It’s probably one of the best things, in terms of getting better at hosting, is host an open mic. You’re never going to have a harder time hosting than when people are aggressively angry at you for invading their space with your attempts to run a show. But other than that, thankfully, every comedian in Dallas is very good at what they do, very professional, respect the craft. So once I get through my five minutes of just work – my job is just getting them to pay attention, and then I know they’re gonna enjoy the show once I hand the ball off to someone else, and just get the show rolling. But yeah, that’s the main difference. Hosting a showcase is just, “Oh cool, I get to do five!” There’s so many unique nuggets – I’ve gotta look at these tables, I’ve got to tell these people to limit their table talk, if they want to leave I’ve got to give them instructions like, “Hey, we’d love you to stay, but we’ve got an outdoor patio if you’re not into partaking in comedy.” It’s a light touch because you don’t want to explain to them that they’re going to ruin the show, because comedy requires everybody to be paying attention. Everybody’s supposed to be on the same train track, and if you try to derail it, the whole thing’s going to fall over on its side. So you can’t do that, you’ve just got to quietly chide them.
So tell me what was going through your head when you decided to take on this responsibility?
I was very excited about it. I was very, very lucky. I’d only been here a couple of months, and then I think it was Tyson Faiffer, [he’d] been hit up because he did Brew-Haha at Noble Rey. Apparently, Tyson had done a showcase at Noble Rey, and it had gone very well, and Noble Rey was like, “We want to do regular comedy, we want to support the open mic scene.” Because Tommy [Miller, the Cellar Manager at Noble Rey], is a really good guy. For some reason in his head, he’s romanticizing, like, “This is where people can get good,” and it’s a great room for it, it’s been a great room for a mic. Tyson was like, “I don’t want to do that, but I’m gonna post about it.” Sandra Balan was looking out for me – I’d known her in Austin, I’d told her my first couple of weeks [back in Dallas] I’d confided that I wanted to get to know people, do everything right, get a room set up, meet people that way. Sandra was looking out for me, she saw the post, and tagged me. Thankfully I’d worked with Tyson back when I was booking a room in San Marcos, because if he hadn’t known my name…the owners at Noble Rey were like, “Hey, what about Wes Corwin?” And he remembered me and could vouch for me. It sincerely helped. Thank goodness I’ve done all the dumb things I’ve done, because it came together with a bunch of people saying, “Oh yeah, Wes could do this.” It just worked out. Probably walking into the room for the first time was terrifying, because it had everything wrong that could be wrong with the room. They had the televisions on, they had these speakers, they had a mic stand where the mic would snap off, they had the wireless mic, and everything that makes you go, “Oh god, this is gonna be over in a month.” But thankfully they’ve been super open to comedy, they’ve done a great job as a venue wanting to support it. They’ve asked people playing foosball in the back, “Hey, could you keep it down, they’re trying to create art here,” which is a ridiculous thing for a venue. That has never happened. Again, I’ve been doing this for six years, I’ve listed a bunch of rooms I’ve done. No one has ever taken the side of comedy over commerce. Which, they didn’t say they couldn’t drink there, they were just like, “Hey, could you maybe not play foosball, these comedians are trying to do their thing.” It’s so odd – and it shouldn’t be odd, but it’s so odd – to be running an open mic, and telling people, “Hey, come out to this, it’s getting better every week,” and not have them treated like second-class citizens when they walk in the door. Because Noble Rey, they really do like everyone who’s coming out, and they really appreciate what we’re doing.
Are you looking at expanding comedy offerings there?
I’ve been talking with them about doing a showcase there, and the second I have a date, I will spread it everywhere. I’m gonna spread it around everywhere. I love a showcase. I think that room is great for an experimental type show. I’ve been talking to them about a mess of ridiculous ideas. Every time a thing pops in my head I immediately run over to the bar. “Hey, we should do a Street Fighter tournament with comedians as commentators!” And they’re like, “…No.” But at some point I’m gonna have an idea and I’m gonna throw it at ’em. We’re probably gonna do a showcase within a month, month-and-a-half, just keep a look out for it you, Central Track reader, you delightful person reading this article. You want to support the scene, reading all these articles. Every time a name pops up of someone Alex has interviewed you click, because you’re a good reader, and I love you and what you do.
From what we’ve talked about, and the moves you’ve made, you’re someone at least willing to take on responsibilities in comedy that a lot of other comics would rather not be saddled with. What motivates you to take on showcases and open mics, and try to be a booker and performer.
I think it comes from a place of that mentality where you have to pick yourself up by the bootstraps. It’s tough because when I started out I had an incredibly quiet voice — I still do, I don’t yell, I have no volume – so I would see other people get noticed. And the people who were getting noticed were getting noticed for the right reasons, because they’re all very funny. But I wasn’t standing out, so if I wanted to do more time, I kind of had to create those opportunities and do it myself. So it’s one of those things where – No. 1, comedy is the only thing I really enjoy, besides my life partner. But mostly comedy, I’m mostly a fan of comedy. But if I wanted to do anything more than three minute sets at an open mic, I had to find an opportunity, an avenue to work rooms myself. Especially with Facebook nowadays, any time I saw a post where it said, “I need somebody to do ten minutes,” I just immediately messaged that person, threw it out there. I made so many dumb mistakes just emailing people. I think I got an email from Steve Hofstetter at one point, because he was running Comedysoapbox.com. He was like, “Hey, if you want work at colleges, hit us up here.” And I sent him a message, “Hey, I’ve done twelve minutes, I’d love to get some guidance on how to grow.” And I got a one-line email which was, “If the longest set you’ve done is 12 minutes, you’re not ready for this work.” Which was accurate, I was not ready. That’s the kind of person I am. If you’re gonna tell me I’m not ready for it, cool, it’s all information, it helps with development. If you put me onstage, I’ll probably surprise you and do well. Unless, yeah, I’ve only done 12. He was right to do what he did, is what I’m getting at. But to answer your question, the only thing I want to do when I do this is to get better and constantly be improving. I’m sure I heard it, I can’t remember where, but at some point it reached the core of my being, which is the only way to get better is to do it over and over and over. Take every opportunity, run rooms, shake people’s hands. It especially helps because I’m not good at talking to people. I’m an OK conversationalist, but I don’t put myself out there too often. But booking shows puts you in that hot seat, like, “Oh I have to reach out, I do have to tell this person I think they’re funny.” I do believe it, I do think you’re funny. It’s just not something I do regularly. And it helps to have that reason, to have that context. Like, “Oh hey, I’m booking you on this show because I think you’re funny,” instead of randomly sending out messages. “Hey I like what you do. OK, thank you.” That’s my M.O. It’s the same reason that I ran an interview podcast for a long time – the secret to that podcast was I never counted on developing listeners, I just really wanted to learn about people who were friends I had in the scene, and I felt awkward walking up and just being like, “Hey, so what was your first set like, what kind of jokes…?”
So it was like stealth research, basically.
Essentially. I just wanted to learn about people I really respected. I’m sure they would’ve been super cool if I’d just gone up and been like, “Hey I just want to talk to you and learn about what you’re doing.” But instead, “Hey, you wanna be on my podcast where you talk about where you came from and what you’re doing?” People are like, “Oh hell yeah, we can plug my Twitter and stuff.” Most of my game plan is just learning about other people, figuring out why I like what they do, and being like, “Oh, that makes sense.”
Are you happy with the DFW area’s DIY scene?
[Laughs.] That is a loaded question.
The hardest thing about the DIY scene in DFW, the people trying to do it themselves, is they are competing against one of the most comprehensive – outside of New York or L.A. – you’ve got six or seven comedy clubs [in DFW], all working really hard to integrate their local scene, which is not a thing you see in every city. They are really trying to put the work in the hands of local people, they’re trying to develop their talent. I haven’t done a lot of work with the Improv but I’ve only heard good things, and I’ve interacted a lot with Butch Lord at Hyena’s, and I know his M.O. is growing the amount of hosts there. So the ideal situation with the DIY scene is you’re creating opportunities that aren’t there, and there’s so much opportunity in Dallas it’s hard to find that niche where you’re connecting with people that are ignored, because it’s just an overwhelming blob — a monster, like the film The Blob, just engorging and taking in comedians as they develop their craft, that’s what the club scene is. But I think there’s always space for a DIY scene, and I’m gonna continue to try to do work. I don’t know if any DIY scene can truly compete with the club scene, and I don’t think that’s our aim or our goal. But I think we’re gonna find a group of people, especially in this day and age, that are like, “Oh, I think my favorite type of comedy show is gonna take place at a brewery for a very small amount of money, and I think I’m gonna see a group of people doing something different, and I think that’s what I want to support.” I think that’s our goal with Noble Rey.
Let’s say I’m a comedian from somewhere else. I’m moving to Dallas. How do you think – I know you technically started here, but you pretty much started in Austin – how do you think a comic arriving here should go about trying to find their footing?
I would recommend just coming here – that’s a good question – probably the best thing I could recommend for someone coming here for the first time and start climbing, is to sign up for everything. Go to Dallas Comedy House, go to Backdoor, go to Hyena’s, go to the Improv, go everywhere you can, shake hands, make sure you’re putting yourself out there socially. It’s one of the most challenging things. I know, I came from a place where I kept my head down, and all I did was write, all I did was work sets. If you want to climb, there’s a social element to the game that I ignored for a long time, but you’ve gotta play that. And I think the most important thing here is to put the time into your writing. If all you’re doing is being social and passing out business cards, it’s not gonna happen. You need to be a strong writer here because so many people are. If you’re not delivering on a comedic level, you’re gonna hit the ceiling very quickly.
Cover photo by Adam Joseph.