By most accounts, local comedian, emcee, producer and writer Matt Ward is the father of the city’s current underground comedy scene. Now, having guided it steadfastly through a painful birth; nurtured it gently through those early years of awkward missteps, he’s ready—like any good dad—to teach his charges the hard lessons they’ll need to leave the nest.
“We’ve got some people who have been doing it a couple years now, who have enough stage time,” says Ward, host of the Upstairs Underground Comedy Showcase, held Sundays at 8 p.m. in the Pub’s Speakeasy. “What they need to do now is to stop writing new material all the time and polish a solid 15-minute set.
“At the next level, you have to be able to blow people away with five minutes of jokes. And that isn’t going to be stuff you just wrote last week.”
When Ward speaks, local comics—at least the ones who know what’s good for them—listen and take heed. Ward first got things rolling hereabouts when he founded the Old City Comedy Night at the now-defunct Patrick O’Sullivan’s in the Old City in 2010.
When the shows started foundering at that venue, he contacted Bernadette West at Preservation Pub. As it happened, the Pub had just opened its upstairs Speakeasy, and West figured a regularly scheduled event would be a good anchor for the new bar.
The UUCS began in January 2011 as a monthly venue for out-of-town comedians, but soon morphed into a weekly open-mic for aspiring local comics.
Ward says the show will begin featuring well-known out-of-town comics again every month or so, beginning soon with Carlos Valencia, in addition to its regular open-mic schedule.
Apparently, Ward started something. Because as UUCS became a solid staple for young and would-be local quipsters, comedy throughout the city suddenly seemed to flourish. More than half a dozen area venues have hosted regular open-mic nights at some point since the UUCS began.
“I’ve seen a lot of local comics come and a lot go,” Ward says. “Some people will show up regularly, then fade out. It’s probably similar to the music scene in that respect. We also have some who come back and start performing again after some time off.”
The downside of playing dad is that Ward has had less time for his own comedy. Though he has experience touring and playing regular club dates, he says he’s cut his own performing back, mostly to local open mics. In addition to his emceeing, Ward is designer/creator of the Knox Comedy website, and an active producer of local comedy shows both here and elsewhere. He estimates he’s put together around 40 shows in the Knoxville area in the last year alone, not counting open mics; and he produces the annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival in North Carolina in spring.
But some of Ward’s reluctance to tour right now is that he believes he still has much to learn before he can stand with the Chappelles and the Louis C.K.’s of the world. “I always feel I’m not at a stage where I’m ready to do a headline tour across the country,” he says. “In comedy, you’re really developing the first 10 years of your career. That’s kind of an accepted level of time.
“Right now, I take more pride in putting people on stage who are already at that level. People who blow you away every time they touch a mic.”
In the meantime, Ward still sees healthy participation Sundays at UUCS. Wannabe comedians are welcome to approach him and arrange for stage time, and he says he gets a new recruit—as well as a couple of returning prodigals—signing on every couple of weeks.
So what’s the one magic quality that separates the young comics who “get it,” from the ones who never seem to pull any laughs? “It’s real simple,” Ward laughs. “But it’s so difficult to figure out at first. Once you get it, though, it makes things so much easier.
“The key is you have to be able to talk and listen at the same time. You have to be able to hear the reaction to what you say, see the reaction, and constantly adjust.”