Comedian Orlando Baxter
When it comes to stand-up comedy, Worcester is a small pond. It’s not Boston, the city that gave comedy superstars like Steven Wright, Louis C.K. and Dane Cook their starts. Nor is it New York or Los Angeles, the cities to which the aforementioned comics moved to reach stardom. But ask anyone involved in Worcester’s comedy scene today and they’ll tell you that even small ponds can spawn big fish.
When Orlando Baxter from Worcester first started performing in 2005, the city had no comedy scene to speak of. He’d just returned from a summer vacation in L.A. where he’d taken the stage for the first time at the behest of a friend.
“I was like ‘Well, nobody here knows me so I might as well try it.’ ” Baxter recalled in a recent interview. “I really just wanted to do it to get it out of my system.”
Instead, he caught the bug. After receiving praise for those first few L.A. open mics, Baxter returned home to Worcester with a new confidence and desire to pursue his comedy dreams. A schoolteacher by day, he began making weekend trips to Boston in search of stage time. First, he got some open mics, then a few spots at clubs like the Comedy Studio and Dick Doherty’s Comedy Vault. Eventually, the travel took its toll.
“I just got tired of driving from Worcester to go to Boston to do shows,” he said. “It was tough. When I started, there were no rooms in Worcester at all — no open mics, nothing going on. Everything was out in Boston.”
So in 2006, just a year into his comedy career, Baxter started his own show, “The O and Sam Show,” which served two purposes. As host, it gave him a sure source of stage time, and it also allowed him to give his comedian friends a space to perform. Shortly thereafter he opened open mics at Three G’s on Millbury Street and Bender’s (now Beatnik’s) on Park Avenue.
From 2007 to 2009, Baxter ran three open mics in Worcester in between a full-time teaching job and working on his own act.
“The majority of the comics from Worcester probably started at either one of my open mics,” said Baxter.
Among them are Ryan Staples, 26, and Shaun Connolly, 25 — two comics originally from Worcester, who, along with fellow comedians Nick Chambers and Doug Guertin, now run Stagetime Comedy Club at José Murphy’s. They both got their starts at Baxter’s shows, and they remember trying to work as a comedian when Worcester had few options for comedy.
“My second time on stage was with (Baxter),” said Staples, recalling the “Boo or Brew” show Baxter ran in 2008. “If you didn’t get booed offstage, he would buy you a beer.”
“That actually sums up what the Worcester scene was like,” added Connolly, who, like Baxter, is a teacher at South High Community School. “We would literally try to get slots on music open mics. There would be guys singing Dave Matthews songs, and we’d come up (with our dirty jokes).”
Comedy in Worcester has come a long way since then. There are currently three weekly comedy rooms — Stagetime, Dick Doherty’s Beantown Comedy Escape at Park Grill and Spirits, and Frank Foley’s Comedy Safari at Viva Bene — in addition to a number of smaller, less regular shows. While it may not seem like much, the number of shows now available would have sounded far-fetched just a few short years ago. What’s more, Worcester comedy today is largely in the hands of the comics, rather than club promoters.
“Now it’s a comic-run scene,” said Staples. “For a long time it was just promoters who would put on thrown-together shows, people would be unhappy, crowds would be unruly. By us for us — we do shows by comedy for comedy and (before) people were doing shows by us for money.”
Much of the scene’s momentum could have unraveled in the past couple of years, with Baxter giving up running the local shows to focus on his own blossoming career. In 2007 he was a finalist in NBC’s ‘Stand Up for Diversity Showcase.” Before too long he was opening up and down the East Coast for Jo Koy, a national headliner most known as a regular panelist on “Chelsea Lately.”
In 2010, Baxter was a finalist for both the New York Comedy Contest and the Boston Comedy Festival. Last year he took a yearlong leave of absence from teaching so he could open for Koy’s national tour. He’s auditioned for Letterman and last year he made it to the finals in a competition that would have sent him to the giant Montreal comedy festival “Just for Laughs.”
“In my heart I feel like it’s coming, it’s just a matter of time,” said Baxter, who’s back teaching at South, for now. “I definitely believe I’m ready, it’s a matter of me nailing an audition or somebody seeing me.
“My goal is to get on TV before the school year is out. I think it would be so cool to get on TV while I’m a teacher. I just want to walk into school and embrace that love from the students — and then tell them I’m quitting.”
But Baxter’s gain hasn’t been Worcester comedy fans’ loss. Other comedians, Connolly in particular, have filled the role Orlando created — the local comic with his prints all over every small show in the city. In addition to Stagetime hosting duties, he runs a twice-a-month show at the Center Bar, a monthly “Mystery Science Theater”-style show at Lucky Dog and a monthly late-night variety show at Beatnik’s.
“I’ve always had this idea brewing in the back of my head to do this variety show, like Conan, or Letterman or Jimmy Fallon,” Connolly said of “The Not-So Late Show,” which started in March. “(I can) highlight my friends from Boston, give them a nice, long set, 15 minutes. Have someone really cool to interview, 15- to 20-minute interview. And then I have a musical guest from Worcester. It’s a big, ‘Hey Worcester’s not so bad.’
“It’s another outlet for comics to come and see that Worcester doesn’t just do the regular old three guys and a headliner show, there’s variety here.”
Staples, who used to run an open mic at Beatnik’s, agreed that comics can get something in Worcester that is unavailable in Boston.
“In Boston all you get to do are seven-minute sets, that’s it,” he said, noting that Stagetime and Connolly’s other shows can offer 15 to 25 minutes. “So guys who normally are only doing anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes can actually come in and work on sustaining longer sets. Ask any comic and that’s huge in growth, because you get stuck if you’re only thinking about these tight little sets. Doing long sets is a totally different beast.”
As club owners, their goal is to give beginners and established comics alike the chance to hone their craft, while making sure to entertain. At Stagetime, they keep ticket prices low ($5) so audiences can focus on having fun, rather than feeling like they have to earn back the money they spent. It takes some pressure off the comedians and offers comedy fans a low-cost option to see a professional show.
Another weekly room is Frank Foley’s Comedy Safari, currently in its fourth year offering shows every Saturday at 8 p.m. The club’s owner, Frank Foley, 53, of Charlton, is a local radio personality who’s been on Worcester’s airwaves for 15 years. He’s been in Worcester and involved in the comedy world for years, so he’s seen the ways in which the local scene has developed.
“It was dead at one point,” Foley said. “I mean dead. There was nothing. I think I opened up my room in the middle of the worst economy at the worst time you could do it. But there’s just a ton of talent around here.
“Now, of course, a lot of open mic rooms have sprouted up, which is great. It’s starting to click.”
Foley said the most significant reason for the shift is a newfound wealth of talented local comedians.
“People are starting to at least know that there’s good comedy here,” he said. “It’s an alternative to going to a movie or sitting around saying there’s nothing to do. There are talented people here that just have not had an outlet or the means to get into the business.”
But those comics that have broken in are finding more opportunities in Worcester than ever before — opportunities that Foley thinks are just the beginning. He sees the CitySquare project, along with other downtown construction works, as signs that the culture of Worcester’s social scene may be changing.
“People are going to start to live in the city, downtown, which we haven’t had in a long time,” Foley said. “My task (now) is to draw people from outside the city in. We’re going to have people living in the city, which is going to be fantastic.”
More comedy-goers will mean more chances for up-and-coming comics to find stage time and hone their acts, which may be the aspect of owning a club that Foley enjoys most.
“I love seeing somebody grow as a comic,” he said. “Orlando, when I first met him, he wasn’t the headliner that he is now. It’s exciting to see some local talent have a stage to get on and then to watch somebody grow from just starting in comedy to making it.”
For Connolly and Staples, Baxter’s success is their eventual goal. Both are still building material, finding their comedic voices, and helping to strengthen a scene and a city while they’re at it.
“When we first started doing it, comedy in Worcester was like going to the Natural History Museum,” quips Connolly, referring to the scene’s former lifelessness. “Now we’re getting them comfortable. It’s more like the children’s museum where you can play with things. You can play with all of us.”
The pair hopes to one day expand Stagetime to two nights a week — Friday and Saturday — and they have preliminary plans to hold quarterly national headliner shows, where they would pay a big-name comedian who’s in the area to do a Thursday night show. Currently, Stagetime holds shows at José Murphy’s every Saturday at 8 p.m.
“We want to build the buzz about comedy in the city, that’s the biggest thing we want to do,” said Staples.
A major breakthrough for the local scene could be the seemingly imminent national emergence of Baxter. When he first started out he opened a room at Foley’s Comedy Safari on Thursday nights, and he credits Foley with helping him and many other comics get their start.
But Foley knew Baxter was a special talent when he first saw him.
“The first time I worked with him was four or five years ago and I even said that to his girlfriend,” he recalled. “It’s only a matter of time.”
That time may be coming for Baxter — the biggest fish yet to come out of Worcester comedy’s little pond. And though that pond might not be big, it is deep. Local comedy fans should be in for plenty of laughs for years to come.
By Bill Janson, Re-posted from Telegram.com