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Comedy clubs struggle to stay open in Sioux Falls

December 16, 2017

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Sioux Falls appears to have a problem with humor. Or at least comedy. More specifically, comedy clubs. Over the last 15 years, a string of comedy clubs have closed, their names now line up like gravestones of the local comedy scene.

Funny Bone. Closed. Fat Daddy’s. Closed. Nitwits. Closed. Rookies. Closed. Wacko’s. Closed.

One could almost forgive the frustration of Kellen Marson, owner of the now-defunct Wacko’s Comedy Club, who vented via Facebook after he closed his club in July. One of his claims: Sioux Falls just didn’t support his comedy club.

“When I opened the club, the promise I made for myself was that, if Sioux Falls supports the club. I’ll keep it open,” he said, in a video to fans. “If Sioux Falls doesn’t support the club. Then I’m going to close it.”

And yet, improbably, Sioux Falls’ comedy scene is arguably doing better than ever, fueled by a rising tide of young comedians, older comedians fighting to keep the scene alive and several open-mic nights that provide the chance to hone comedic chops.

“We have a small scene, but it’s surprisingly good,” said local comedian Nate Hults. “I’ve been to a lot of other places to do comedy, and I think Sioux Falls has a high concentration of good comics.”

Sioux Falls comes with a specific set of problems for comedy clubs. The city is an expensive location for out-of-town comedians. The area’s short summers distract potential patrons, meaning a comedy club is essentially a seasonal business, requiring business savvy so bills get paid during lean months.

“A lot of the clubs in the Midwest are seasonal, because it’s hard to compete with outside activity,” said veteran local comedian Dan Bublitz Jr.

And the comedy club business model is usually based on up-front costs, things like two-drink minimums, that aren’t common in Sioux Falls, the Argus Leader reported .

“Midwesterners are not used to paying a lot of money for things,” jokes Joe Medema, another veteran local comic.

Medema has long seen all the recent clubs come and go, and he pointed out another pitfall of comedy clubs: the vibe. Comedy clubs often try to get too shiny, he said.

“If you look at all these comedy clubs across the countries, they’re not nice places,” he said. “They’re not in bad places of town, but they’re not nice buildings, they’re not nice settings.”

Some of the recent clubs have had their share of red flags. Wacko’s, which opened in the former home of Nitwits on East 10th Street, was in a nice, newer building, with room for a lot of people. Room can be a bad thing.

“If you have a really big room and there’s hardly anybody in it, there’s a really weird vibe,” said Bublitz Jr. “It’s a really awkward feeling.”

At Rookies, comics would get interrupted by noise from the bar on the other side of the wall. You want an intimate setting that is relatively small, Medema said, so the comic is comfortable and connects with the crowd.

And don’t make the place too nice, he said. It doesn’t have to be bad. But not too nice.

“You don’t want it to look like Granite City in there, you know what I mean?” He said.

Hults put his money where his mouth is — literally. He teamed up with Jeremy Seefeldt, owner of Boss’ Pizza and Chicken, to open a comedy club in the restaurant’s side room at its South Minnesota Avenue storefront.

Seefeldt, a long-time comedy supporter, had hosted a regular weekly open-mic night on Wednesday, but the new Boss’ Comedy Club is humming on weekends as well, with local and out-of-state comedians doing Saturday night shows.

“I believe Sioux Falls can support a comedy club,” Hults said. “Because if I didn’t, I’d be an idiot, because I opened up a comedy club.”

Open-mic nights are thriving in Sioux Falls, with opportunities at Fernson on Eighth, Wiley’s and Boss, among others, and there are still a lot of independent comedy shows to be found.

The local comedy comedian supports each other, Bublitz Jr. said, which isn’t always common in other parts of the country.

“Those bigger scenes, everyone is about themselves,” he said. “In a scene like ours, we’re out to make the scene look good, and out to make each other look good.”

Bublitz Jr. just recently launched a Facebook page — Sioux Empire Comedy — to serve as a home for the local scene. And he and others are preparing for the next annual Sioux Falls Sno Jam Comedy Festival in February, featuring 30 comedians from around the country.

“There are a lot of things in the community that say the opposite of what people think, that the community doesn’t support comedy,” Bublitz Jr. said. “There are too many variables that prove that wrong.”

Even if comedy clubs struggle here, Sioux Falls loves to laugh. And a comedy club is a go-to source for the giggles.

“It’s a viable option,” Hults said. “We’ve got to have it, because comedy is definitely going to save the world, especially in these times.”

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