When Nick David and Brad Hagen approached the owners of the Shaskeen two years ago, they were a couple of Manchester comedians looking for a place to hone their skills. To the happy surprise of both, the weekly open-mike night they launched became a touchstone for comics from all over the region.
“The first week it started out very slow — we had seven or eight comics,” Hagen says. “That was pretty much the crowd — the comedians. By the holiday season, it was like 60-plus back here. We realized we had something on our hands; we had no idea what was going on.”
Early on, most of the performers were comics trying to build careers, not water cooler funny guys. Many had worked at a moderately successful Friday night gathering at the nearby Bridge Café, which, Hagen says, “at its peak it was getting 20-plus comedians a week. You could tell there was a scene, and since it was so tight knit, when this started up, everyone on stage took it seriously, putting their time in and trying to be as funny as they could.”
Short, crisp sets are the rule, with the weekly slate limited to 15 comedians doing five minutes each. When there are fewer signups, sets can get as long as six to 10 minutes. If well-known comics like Juston McKinney or Rob Steen drop by, “they get as much time as they want,” Hagen says with a laugh.
The event’s professional pace made it popular with non-comics, a factor that’s helped it grow.
“It’s labeled an open mike,” says Nick Lavallee, who started coming in early 2009, “but anytime you have 50 audience members, that’s a legit room.” If a comic can make people laugh at the Shaskeen, he can do it in Portland or Portsmouth.
“You’re getting a lot more experience out of this room than another room,” Hagen says. “That makes you a better comedian. These people would show up and actually enjoy all the comedians they saw on Wednesday night. Once they saw it people would come up and then ask for a spot on next week’s show.”
A celebratory mood permeated on a recent November night as Juston McKinney headlined a show celebrating the “Comedy Jam” night’s second anniversary in the back room of the soccer scarf-festooned bar. Local comics who’d come up through the weekly event rounded out the bill, and the night seemed more about being together. Prior to his set, Lavallee sat at the bar and talked about the burgeoning community that the open-mike night spawned.
As front man for a local punk band, Lavallee heard more than once that he was a born funny man; eventually, he brought some of his material to the Shaskeen.
“Most musicians would be offended to hear, ‘Dude, the music’s OK, but you’re a comedian,’” said Lavallee. “But I always knew in the back of my mind that I would give this a shot. I had been writing stuff for over a year, and then I got wind of this open-mike night that Brad and Nick do.”
By 2010, Lavallee was on his way to becoming an established comic and appearing at shows with national talents like Bo Burnham. He calls his comedy “a hobby that I hope to turn into a second income.”
Lavallee has released two CDs, the most recent featuring “I Love You, Sally Struthers.” He and Struthers snog and grope in the video for the song, which became a small Internet sensation. It’s really her, explains Lavallee. “We dated for a bit, we were going to be the world’s worst celebrity couple.”
It’s a hometown crowd on both sides of the microphone, says Hagen.
“We come from the same place. If you come from Manchester there’s no hiding it. Instantly you have something in common, and friendships build.” In places like Boston, the scene is much more competitive — “It’s harder to find a cohesive group of people who care about each other. We all high five each other a lot.”
Last fall, Hagen spent a few months in New York City and found that even the best new joke might elicit at best a chuckle.
“Other comedians … don’t want to laugh or support other people’s stuff. They’re thinking of better punchlines in their head, or tweaking what you said. Then I’d try it out in front of a real audience and it would kill. You don’t get the learning curve with regular open mikes that you get here.”
Because of this, a lot of Boston comedians who do regular weekend work will frequently fill up a car and come up to the nurturing environment of the Shaskeen. “It gives you an honest opinion of your jokes, where other rooms just don’t do that,” says Lavallee. “That’s the essence of the room — what Nick and Brad did here was build a community. It wasn’t just another comedy show, that’s what separates the Shaskeen. I don’t think they intentionally did it; it just sort of happened.”