Something funny has been going on in downtown Durham: stand-up comedy.
The downtown pubs, bars, and breweries on Main Street, shuttered for months during the pandemic, are now abloom with giggles, groans, and guffaws to accompany their beers and burgers.
Khari Reid, a transplant from Los Angeles, is the moving force behind these welcome bursts of communal laughter.
A bespectacled, unassuming fellow, Reid rolls around in cargo shorts, Chuck Taylors, and a T-shirt underneath an open button-down. He’s on a quiet crusade to Make America Laugh Again, starting with Durham, when he moved here in 2017.
“My mom named me Khari so that blind people would know that I’m Black,” Reid says by way of introduction at the comedy shows he organizes and emcees. “I’m the least threatening Black man since Jesus.”
Reid’s decision to try his hand at stand-up happened around 2010 when he signed up for a comedy class. His final exam was a standup gig in the Belly Room, the smallest of three performance venues inside the famed Comedy Store on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
“I apparently did well,” he says. “There was genuine applause and genuine laughter. Genuine laughter is continuous.” The stand-out moment during Reid’s set was his attempt to arrest a police officer sitting in the front row.
But Reid says he grew tired of living on the West Coast.
“I just kind of found Durham,” he says. “When I got here, all I saw was trees everywhere.”
In 2018, Reid resumed his fledgling comedy career “at the legendary Durty Bull,” a brewery that features live music and comedy performances in the NoCo District. The Durty Bull was one of the first downtown venues to regularly feature comedy.
“They made me feel welcome,” Reid says, and The Durty Bull became a place where comedians would tell jokes to other comedians, and the 20 or so people who came to listen and laugh.
Rob Schneider, a Raleigh accountant who does stand-up comedy on the side, has been organizing comedy nights at the Durty Bull since 2017.
“Khari came and checked it out pretty early on,” Schneider told the INDY this week. “We became good friends and have done lots of shows together. He’s really taken the ball and gone with this one.”
Schneider says the mother lode of comedy currently taking place downtown “was kind of like a perfect storm,” because for years, local comedians had to pursue the art in other places. He said that the interest in downtown comedy is also tied to city and civic leaders’ push to bring people back downtown.
One day, something tugged on Reid’s funny bone. Why not start booking stand-up shows for local comedians? He decided to shoot for local watering holes and eateries: opportunities for local comedians are rare at established comedy venues like Goodnights, which hosts an open mic on Wednesday nights, and the Raleigh Improv in Cary.
Reid’s first booking was at the Honeysuckle on Chapel Hill Road, where he organized a comedy night in January.
“It was right around the election and people needed a reason to laugh,” he says.
Reid contacted other night spots that might have needed a little something extra to get folk back into their businesses, after the shutdown. He made an agreement with Maverick’s in Durham to book shows there for six months.
“I told them ‘we don’t do clean shows’ and I can’t guarantee what the comics will say,” Reid says. “They told me, ‘we don’t care what you do.’”
Last week at Maverick’s, after setting up mobile PA and lighting systems that Reid travels with, he kicked the ballistics of the comic craft with one of the night’s more than 20 performers who signed on to do a five-minute set.
“People see you and you become part of the community,” Reid tells Albert Peele Brett James, a budding jester from Jacksonville who now calls Raleigh home. Brett is James’s comic name.
“I used to write short stories,” Brett says. “Somebody told me I was funny, so I said, ‘why not?’”
While the next Chappelle, Tiffany Haddish, or Durham’s own Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham has not yet emerged from downtown Durham’s comedy nights, Schneider says there are a handful of “legitimate traveling comedians who are featured or headlining comedy clubs throughout the region.”
“They can come here and try out new material before doing a paid show to kind of test things out,” Schneider says.
Jessica Wellington, a Mount Olive native who recently returned to North Carolina after working in comedy in Los Angeles, stands on the stage of the outside plaza behind James Joyce on a recent night.
She shares the joys of cursing out a turkey sandwich at a 7-Eleven, before ruefully telling the audience she was cast in a “reality” show on the West Coast, where she played a racist skinhead.
“My dad called and said he was proud of me,” she says.
Stand-up comedy is not for the faint-hearted. More than a few amateurs bomb, badly. During one memorable performance, a man listed all of the people he hated; the wiry guy who followed made comic currency of his predecessor’s hate list, but he bombed, too. It was also a tough night for Brett, who warned that “Durham is about to be a war zone,” owing to FDA plans to ban menthol cigarettes.
But Reid is there after each act, to clean the audience’s comic palettes with a new round of hilarity.
“My goal is to be a good regional booker of comedy shows,” Reid says of his growing role as an impresario and nurturer of new talent. “And also to host more open mics so that people can practice the art form, see how it’s done, and learn the business.”
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