When it comes to doing comedy, it helps to think you’re funny.
Rochester native John Russell had that going for him one Thursday night when he stepped on stage during open mic night at Goonie’s Comedy Club. It was his first stab at comedy, and Russell was feeling brash. But instead of laughs, the then-47-year-old’s routine produced little but stony silence from the audience.
And that was how Russell’s comedic career began.
“It was horrible,” said Russell. “It’s such an interesting thing. I think if I had done well the first time, I might not have kept doing it.”
Today Russell has been doing stand-up comedy for eight years, yet it’s easy to imagine his comedic opportunity passing him by. Russell was an unemployed KROC disc jockey when he made his leap onto the comedy stage. But there would have been no foray — certainly no comedy career — if not for one simple fact: Rare among cities Rochester’s size, the Med City has a comedy club.
The club marked its 10-year anniversary on Jan. 20. But don’t feel bad if you missed the celebration, because there was little to no fanfare surrounding the milestone. Laughter may be good for the soul, but the business of comedy has little time for sentimentality.
The only concession to the moment was a posting on Goonie’s Facebook page of Hannibal Burress, a stand-up comedian and a one-time featured act at the Rochester club. Today Burress stars in his own Comedy Central show, “Why? with Hannibal Burress,” and has appeared in several movies, including Will Ferrell’s “Daddy’s Home?”
“I thought it was a great example for being 10 years in,” said Mark Klampe, the owner of Goonie’s and McGoon’s Pub & Restaurant below the comedy club in downtown Rochester. “People now know who he is. They didn’t know who the hell he was 10 years ago. And there are so many good acts that you are going to laugh your ass off here.”
Laughs and love
Ask Klampe to reflect on the last decade, and one gets the sense that an evening of laughter is recompense enough for his efforts. Because if you’re in the comedy business for any reason other than laughs — like money, for example — then you’ve picked the wrong line of business. Goonie’s, Klampe said, is a labor of love that produces laughter but not much money.
“It’s probably the only reason we’re still here, is that I love it,” Klampe said. “It’s still the same as it was when we first opened. It’s outstanding entertainment for not a lot of money, and it’s right in downtown Rochester.”
In addition to Burress, Goonie’s has drawn scores of regional and national comedians on the comedy circuit, including Costaki Economopolous (the self-professed biggest name in comedy), Shane Mauss and Doug Stanhope. TV actor Dustin Diamond, aka Screech from “Saved by the Bell” fame, also performed at the club, then later stabbed a person in barroom fight in Wisconsin.
Goonie’s has a reputation as one of the best comedy clubs in the Midwest among touring comics, Russell said.
“It’s highly respected,” Russell said. “Everybody wants to work there.”
One reason is financial. Performers can count on getting on paid, no matter if a roaring snowstorm forces a show’s cancellation.
Ready for close-up
The other is the aesthetics of the second-floor comedy club. It’s an intimate space that parks audience members right up to the stage, the better to spread the infectiousness of laughter. The stage is set in a corner of the room, making the performer on it the audience’s undivided center of attention.
Russell contrasts that experience with one he had at a VFW hall recently, where he and the audience were separated by 40 feet.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, you guys can almost see me,'” Russell said.
The comedy club has an open mic night on Thursdays for wannabe and aspiring comics. Professional comedians perform on Friday and Saturday nights. The two activities couldn’t be more different from one another, drawing two distinctly different crowds.
Open mic can be raw, raunchy and vulgar. That’s not to say the weekend performances don’t have some of the same elements, but it’s delivered by a comedian who understands the craft. Open mic is the incubator, the batting cages for amateur comedians who hope to join the big leagues someday.
“The good news is that the open mic at Goonie’s is awesome,” Russell said. “The bad news is that there’s not enough work around Rochester for a (working comic). You have to move in order to progress.”
‘It’s not getting any easier’
Klampe said the idea of starting his own comedy club formed while living as a college student in Madison, Wis.. His parents would come to visit, and together they would attend a comedy show. “It was so much fun,” Klampe recalled. It was then that the idea occurred to him: Why not bring the same experience to Rochester?
Yet 10 years into the venture, Klampe can’t help but observe that a “majority of the city” has never been to Goonie’s. When asked to predict whether the club will be here a decade from now, Klampe is noncommittal.
“I don’t know. I’m not the one to ask,” Klampe said. “I mean, we’re weighing a lot of options right now for where the costs are going, especially for being downtown. It’s hard already, and it’s not getting any easier.”
Yet the day-to-day responsibilities, as stressful as they can sometimes be, haven’t yet outweighed or overwhelmed the enjoyment Klampe gets in watching a show. In the end, it comes down to the laughter.
“It’s so much fun to watch people laugh, to see people smile. It makes it all worth it,” Klampe said. “It could have all the money in the world. What am I going to do with it?”
A little history
Goonie’s Comedy Club and McGoon’s Pub & Restaurant, 7 Second Street, SW, Rochester, is located in an area of downtown Rochester rich in local history. The building was previously occupied by O’Neils Pizza, and before that by Clubhaus Brew Pub. Tinkler’s Restaurant was another incarnation.
In the 1930s and 40s, McGoon’s taxi company had its taxi stand in front of the building and was known for its sightseeing business. Local lore also has it that during a bank robbery, Rochester police commandeered one of McGoon’s taxis in pursuit of the robbers.