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Wit and wisecracks: Yakima's comedy scene

Standup comedy has traditionally been a tough sell in this area.

Carmen’s Comedy Club in Selah gave it a good three-year run before closing at the end of 2011. It just wasn’t making money. The Laugh Lounge, which opened in 2014 in the old Clarion Hotel on North First Street, was even shorter-lived, closing in 2015.

But more recently, there’s been a bit of an uptick. Bill’s Place, which has hosted comedy on and off since at least 2017, last year committed to hosting a monthly (since reduced to bimonthly) Laugh Tap showcase for touring comics. And, more interestingly for those who’d like to see homegrown comedy, an open mic scene has developed over the past two years featuring some legitimately funny people at places like the Yakima Sports Center, Hop Nation Brewing, Game and Grog, and Bill’s.

So now on any given Tuesday you can catch a free show at Bill’s, and on Thursdays you can catch one at Hop Nation. That’s in addition to the Laugh Tap and the occasional shows at The Capitol Theatre or the Yakima Valley SunDome. And sure, OK, it’s true that a lot of the comedians you see on stage at local open mics aren’t great. They’re never going to progress beyond Yakima open mics. But a few of them have a real shot.

“It’s in its infancy,” said B.J. Johnson, a Yakima-based nationally touring comic who regularly hosts the Laugh Tap shows. “They’re treating it more like a social club. But it’s coming along. They just need to treat it a little more seriously.”

Johnson doesn’t do the local open mics, but he’s noticed a few people from that scene who have potential, including Yakima-raised Parker Jones and former Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Mike Faulk, the latter of whom is filling in for Johnson as Bill’s Laugh Tap host this Saturday.

“When I can’t host the Laugh Tap, I use Mike Faulk,” Johnson said. “He understands it. And Parker as well. So there are some people here who take it seriously and really get into it.”

Jones, in addition to getting the nod from Johnson, has a good claim to being the face of Yakima’s standup scene. He hosted the Tuesday open mic at Bill’s this week, and he’s been doing pop-up events around town in advance of an Oct. 18 showcase at Bearded Monkey. The last of those, which you can catch for free at 7 p.m. Friday at Collaboration Coffee, is called “Parker Jones Presents: The Art of Awkwardness.”

It’s appropriately named. Jones, 26, has always been awkward. He grew up feeling like an outsider because of his mixed race. He barely talked as a child and still doesn’t really feel comfortable with most interactions. (His day job as one of those guys who holds advertising signs on street corners fits his personality perfectly.) But put a microphone in his hands, and the awkwardness becomes immediately disarming, even endearing.

Jones discovered that power on his 17th birthday when his friends and family, knowing how much he liked watching and listening to standup, blindfolded him and put him on a makeshift stage. They removed the blindfold and told him to tell jokes.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know any jokes,’” he said in an interview this week.

And that line got laughs. In fact, the whole thing was pretty well received. He started doing short sets at the old North Town Coffeehouse open mic, which was mostly singers and songwriters. Jones used those opportunities to hone a kind-and-gentle brand of comedy, pointing out absurdity like one of his heroes, Jim Gaffigan, but doing it with the laconic one-liner style of another hero, Mitch Hedberg. It became addictive. After he graduated from college, he chased whatever stage time he could get, sleeping in his car or on friends’ couches when he needed to.

“Even though I felt misunderstood most of my life, the connection through laughter is immediate,” Jones said.

People have noticed him more and more lately.

“Parker Jones has done a great job not only improving his act but promoting himself around town,” said Faulk, who started doing standup in 2018 while on sabbatical from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I really respect what he’s doing, and he’s earning it.”

And, while the rest of the local open mic regulars are a mixed bag — as are open mic-ers anywhere — Jones isn’t the only one who’s stood out. Samantha Mesman has created a unique voice, using poetry and song as a way to stand out. Bahiyyih Mudd has put in years of stage time, honing her brand of standup. Brian Briskey, a relative newcomer to comedy, has quickly caught the attention of local audiences. One of Faulk’s new local favorites, Sherry Lagerstam, did her first open mic earlier this year and already has become one of the better regulars.

“I want people to come to open mics because it’s as much a part of the art scene as anything else in town and it’s all local people not making any money trying to make it happen,” Faulk said. “But even more than that, I want more people to try telling jokes. The funniest people I know in Yakima are people who have never gotten on stage. I wasted years only talking about doing it, and when I finally committed it taught me a lot about myself and others.”

Mesman, a 24-year-old nurse with a keen eye for life’s absurdities, got on stage the first time expressly because it was scary, she said. It’s still a terrifying experience, she said, but it’s also rewarding.

“It’s my outlet,” she said. “If I have an absurd moment in my life, I just write about it. ... After the fact, whether I’ve been up there doing good or bad, I’m proud of myself for getting off the couch and doing it.”

For Doug Granstrand, who owns Bill’s and who said the Laugh Tap events generally sell out, hosting open mic comedy was just another way of offering something Yakima has an appetite for.

“It’s just entertainment,” he said. “And it’s something you could go to see in Seattle or Portland that was kind of lacking in this town. It’s something that fits our venue really well.”

The first open mic he hosted this week was better than Granstrand expected. He and his wife stood in the back and watched.

“We were both cracking up,” he said.

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