As she approached her thirtieth birthday, Erin Terry decided to do something she’d never done before: stand-up comedy. She’d always been a funny person, the kind of person friends ask to retell a funny story that happened to all of them, but she didn’t think of herself as a comedian.
“I really had tried hard to ignore my leanings to get on stages and talk and try to make people laugh for a long time,” Terry says. She knew some acquaintances doing open mics; she thought she was funnier. That was the motivation she needed. “I decided that, before I turned thirty, I was going to get on stage and do a routine.”
She watched stand-up routines online. She practiced with a hairbrush in front of her mirror. For her first open mic, in February 2014 at Raleigh’s Tir Na Nog, she invited all of her friends and family—that way she knew someone would laugh. The real test, she says, came the next month, when she did another set for a room full of strangers. When they laughed at her jokes, she knew she was hooked.
It took her only a few months to notice how male-dominated the scene was. Shows rarely featured more than one female comic, if any. But she’d already met lots of women doing comedy in the Triangle. Why weren’t they getting the same stage time?
“I started asking the women on the scene, ‘How do you get booked?’” Terry says. “Are there any shows that do more than one woman at a time? How do we tell them that there is room for more than one woman?”
She didn’t think the men were being intentionally malicious; she attributed the discrepancy to a gross oversight on their part. Through her conversations with these women comedians, one thing became apparent: They could run their own show, by women, featuring women.
That way, Terry says. “We can all shine a bit more instead of trying to duke it out one at a time.”
To get an audience, Terry decided to do the show on First Friday in downtown Raleigh. She booked seven comedians, a tall line-up. The now-closed bar Common 414 agreed to let them do a one-time show there. Nervous about the turnout, she worked hard to promote it. Her efforts paid off: By show time, it was standing room only.
The inaugural Eyes Up Here showcase, in March 2015, was a smashing success.
Terry decided that night that Eyes Up Here couldn’t be a one-time thing. Common 414 couldn’t commit to a monthly show, so Terry approached Kings and Neptunes, both of which agreed to give her a regular show. She booked line-ups of exclusively women, and began encouraging curious women to try out jokes at open mics.
“I joke that I started doing comedy so I would stop stalking my ex-boyfriend on Facebook,” says Elisse Thompson, a comedian who is now an organizer and host with Eyes Up Here. “Erin was very welcoming, giving stage time when I was really new. If you don’t get stage time, you can’t grow as a comic. And if you only do a couple of minutes here and there, you really won’t grow. Erin has given me a lot of stage time, and she does that for other new and aspiring comedians.”
Thompson now runs her own monthly show at Bull City Ciderworks, giving stage time for short stand-up sets of emerging comedians.
It’s easy to applaud Terry for bringing more women comedians to the stage. But just as remarkable is that Terry took a meaningful concept and drove it to be successful as possible: Comedians and collaborators in the Triangle note her ingenuity and doggedness as reasons for why Eyes Up Here has been so successful.
“Now that I have been in the comedy scene for a little while, I’m blown away,” Thompson says. “I’m happy doing my comedy mainly with Eyes Up Here, because I know I will be supported that way. The audience is usually more engaged, bigger, and better than the other showcases that I’ve done that have been run by men.”
The ingredients that make Eyes Up Here so successful is its continuing relationship with venues, persistent and welcoming promotion, and, most important, how Terry grows and develops comedians.
“Erin is the sister that you always wanted to have,” Thompson says. “She’s supportive and welcoming. She’s one of the sweetest people, but she also keeps it real. I don’t have any issue with trusting her with my own career in comedy, my own ventures in comedy.”
In the almost four years since Eyes Up Here’s first show in Raleigh, it has grown into a multipronged effort, with regular shows in downtown Raleigh, Durham, and Asheville. Terry has driven carfuls of women comedians to Charlotte and Wilmington to do femme-only shows. There are workshops and open mics targeted at new comedians, including Thompson’s show at Bull City Ciderworks. Eyes Up Here has also done special themed shows like “Funny for a Fat Girl.”
Terry says Eyes Up Here isn’t done growing. In 2019, she hopes to continue its regular programming across the Triangle, as well as host an all-femme comedy festival in Durham.
“I’ve joked this year that I’ve now been doing comedy longer than both of my marriages combined,” Terry, who has been married and separated twice, says. “You get what you put into it. I put a lot of kindness and love into the community, as much as I can. There are so many shows to do. Twenty nineteen is going to be busy.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the title “Funny for a Fat Girl” as “Fat for a Funny Girl.”