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Stage Funny business

December 30, 2018

It’s 9 on a Saturday night and the lobby of the Circle Hotel is set up as a small theater. A hundred folding chairs face the fireplace, and a wall of drapes separates the makeshift venue from the business side of the hotel. People stream in, happy, chattering, sharing BYOB wine, ready for an evening of standup comedy at the Fairfield Comedy Club.

It’s a type of entertainment that was uncommon in eastern Fairfield County until the club opened in April 2017. And a hotel lobby is an unlikely place to double as a standup venue. But here it is, on the edge of a traffic circle near the Fairfield-Black Rock border, next to a diner and a Dunkin Donuts, with regular performances on Fridays and Saturdays and a summer comedy series at nearby Penfield Pavilion.

Tonight’s host is Trumbull resident Joe Gerics, a Trumbull native who moved back to the suburbs from New York City 21 months ago and is a co-founder of the club. He’s wise to the incongruity of standup comedy — a hip city activity — in the staid suburbs. “Glad to have you at the most exciting thing to happen tonight in Connecticut,” he says, bounding to the microphone. “It’s not like that’s a high hurdle to get over — to be the best thing going on in Connecticut.”

“If you live in Connecticut and tell someone you’re going out to have some fun, they say, ‘Oh, where are you going?’” Gerics adds. “This is the best thing. And it almost looks like a low-class wedding. We have white plastic folding chairs, you have to bring your own booze.”

The crowd roars and hoots. They also know all about dull suburbs and the cool city vibe of standup comedy—and that’s why they’re there.

Gerics knows this. He employs a little flattery, telling the 9 p.m. crowd that they’re the party crowd, the edgier ones, while the 7 p.m. folks just want to go to bed early. “You guys are better than those 7 o’clock people,” he says. At the 7 p.m. show, the message sometimes gets reversed. “This is behavior I expect from a drunken 9 o’clock crowd,” he tells them during one raucous moment.)

Gerics’ opening routine shifts into bonding about suburban life — incongruities of backyard gardens, visits to Home Depot, how dark the streets are at night. As the host, he sets up the evening, introduces the lineup of comics, almost all of whom are regular performers in New York and other cities, and some of whom are nationally known, including Artie Lange, Pete Davidson, Jamie Kennedy and the Daily Show correspondents Gina Yashere, Ronny Chieng and Michael Kosta.

Gerics, 39, saw an opportunity when he moved back to Connecticut. He teamed up with Fairfield Prep classmates R. Beecher Taylor IV, also 39, and Emilio Savone, 40. Taylor, also a Trumbull native, is a comedian and actor. Savone, from Milford, is a promoter and co-owner of the New York Comedy Club.

“In New York, I was producing monthly shows at the New York Comedy Club,” Gerics says. “When I came back to Connecticut, I needed somewhere to perform. I knew Ed Gormbley, owner of the Circle Inn and the Hotel Hi-Ho. Ed said, ‘Why not the hotel?’”

Savone describes the Fairfield venue as part of a larger network of comedy clubs he’s building.

“Comedians need stage time,” he says. “We wanted to provide a platform outside of New York City. The Atlantic City Comedy Club was running very well. This was serendipity. We thought this was an opportunity to start something special.”

All three partners are bullish on the prospects of the club and believe there’s potential for significant growth. Indeed, the Bridgeport area is experiencing a sudden boom in comedy venues. The Fairfield Comedy Club now has a major competitor in the Stress Factory, a club that opened in May on State Street in downtown Bridgeport, and which also attracts big-name talent.

“Man, I wish Stress Factory wasn’t getting mentioned in our feature,” Gerics says in response to a question about the competition. “But to be honest, it’s great to see Fairfield County improving its comedy scene. That’s good for audiences and artists alike. And while what we are doing is so different from the Factory with our small business and casual BYOB atmosphere, I’d put our talent up against any show or room in Connecticut.”

The room’s capacity is 110 and sellouts are common. Marketing is done through social media and word of mouth. Community outreach in the form of performances for charitable causes and civic organizations also plays a key role. A website and ticketing platform were supplied via infrastructure Savone already had with his other clubs.

Gerics says an initial startup investment of about $1,500 was paid off after the first week. “This is the first time I’ve ever made money in comedy,” he says. “I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted to perform.” Now, he says, he sees a path to a full-time pursuit of comedy as a profession.

Of the three partners, only Gerics isn’t an entertainment-industry professional — he’s got a hospitality and customer-service background. Taylor, who has a degree in political science and economics, was drawn to performing early.

“I started out at the Cedar Point Yacht Club in Westport,” he says. “From there, I started doing open mics. It’s how most comedians do it. I had this kind of cultural overlap — if you make people laugh, they like you,” Taylor adds. “Humor is a tool.”

“It’s a weapon,” Gerics interjects before continuing: “Beecher is a pro performer. It’s what he does. For me there never was an opportunity to make comedy a job. I got started too late.”

Taylor comes from a line of pastors, at least some of whom had the gift of comedy. He carries a photo of a 110-year-old poster announcing a lecture at a church in Petersburg, Va., by his great grandfather, Rev. R. Beecher Taylor, who was pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. The lecture was called “Uncle Jerry at Forks in the Road.” Admission was 10 cents. “The lecture is full of humor and advice,” the poster promises. “You can laugh and grow fat.”

Savone, for his part, started in event marketing, organizing street teams and flash mobs, and generally doing guerrilla marketing for comedy clubs and other venues. Eventually he and a partner took over the New York Comedy Club, a well-known venue that had fallen on hard times. They turned around that venue in the Gramercy Park area, added a second club in the East Village, then Atlantic City and now Fairfield.

“Can Fairfield support a weekly comedy club model?” Savone asks. “It’s gained a lot of support. People want us to do well there. It’s becoming a cool little comedy ground. We can do better in reaching more outside towns. There’s room for growth.”

More information at fairfieldcomedyclub.com

Tony Silber is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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