Tuesday, Feb. 19, 9 p.m., free
Fullsteam Brewery, Durham
During the early years of downtown Durham’s current wave of development, the best place in town for stand-up comedy was a makeshift stage on the top floor of Fishmonger’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Main Street.
Calling it a stage was generous; it was a couple of pallets stacked together. There was no proper lighting. It smelled like shellfish. But Fishmonger’s was generous with its bourbon: charging for one shot, but pouring at least two. And, more important, the restaurant agreed to give every Saturday night to Deb Aronin, a local comedian who was eager to establish a weekly open mic. She called it “Comedy Mongers.”
Then, Aronin was a newly converted stand-up comedian. After graduating from Duke in 2008, where she studied history and documentary studies, she worked part-time at a café. At the behest of her musician boyfriend, who liked the humorous notes that she would leave around the apartment, she performed her first few stand-up sets at The Broad Street Café before her fondness for the C-word prevented her from performing there again. But no matter: By then, she was already hooked on comedy. She started attending a Monday open mic at The Tavern, but was puzzled by the lack of weekend shows in Durham. It seemed like a gap.
“Nobody used to come to Durham for comedy,” Aronin says. “You had to go to Raleigh. You had to go to Chapel Hill. Or you had to go to Greensboro. And I really liked Durham. I saw where it was going, and it’s grown into this awesome place that everybody loves now. Somebody had to!”
To produce her first show, Aronin purchased a used PA system from a friend’s band, made a poster, and spread the word far and wide.
“The first show was an oddball affair,” says comedian Tyler Meznarich, who helped coordinate the weekly show with Aronin before he moved out to Los Angeles. “The audience was a couple of friends, our partners. We actually went down and talked to the people in Fishmonger’s and told them we were going to be upstairs doing comedy. We were also on the street barking at people and got some people that way. It was not a roaring success, but it was a fun show. And it showed us there was an audience for comedy in Durham.”
At first glance, it might not seem like Aronin was destined for comedy. The daughter of neuroscientists, she grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston (home, notably, to the Fig Newton). She has two older sisters, both overachievers in their own right—one recently competed in the Boston Marathon. But Aronin says she was the entertainer of the family, always angling to make her mom, who she says has a trademark laugh, crack up. In imitation, Aronin breaks into a wide, open grin and gasps for air while squeaking intermittently. Her mother, she says, has continued to be supportive of her comedy aspirations, despite being a bit prone to exaggeration.
“My mom tells her friends that I run a comedy club,” Aronin says. She doesn’t—at least, not yet—but she might as well. She has run her Saturday open mic for more than five years, migrating from Fishmonger’s to Tootie’s to Sam’s Quik Shop (R.I.P. times three). She wonders whether her open mic cursed these establishments. (Another name for that curse might be gentrification.)
Now, the open mic has found a new home at Hunky Dory on Ninth Street. On March 2, the first show there kicks off at 8:00 p.m.
“If you’re a comic in Durham, there’s definitely a ceiling on opportunities where there are only so many clubs, there are only so many paid spots or spots where you could go and do more than a five-minute open-mic set,” Meznarich says. “What Deb did was beyond just starting a show and providing affordable entertainment. She was also giving a lot of quality stage time to newer comedians who didn’t have that access before.”
Three years ago, Aronin took over the Bulltown Comedy Series and now programs a monthly line-up of stand-up comedians at Fullsteam Brewery (the next installment is on Tuesday, February 19). She has brought big comedians like Beth Stelling and Dulcé Sloan to Motorco and The Pinhook, promoting the shows herself and investing her own money in the process.
“Deb is a real tenacious person,” Meznarich says. “Once she had that sense that she could do it on her own, she just did it on her own. She found Motorco, negotiated a deal with them, and started talking to comics. She just went and booked these comics herself.”
Aronin believes her comedy has mellowed with age; she no longer drops quite so many C-words. But at a recent Bulltown Comedy Series—which she programmed, emceed, and performed at—she made a joke about her pubic hair that somehow cogently linked to the Gaza strip and the Israel-Palestine conflict, so the jury is out on her claim that she has “mellowed.” But her enthusiasm for making space for comedy in Durham has not mellowed in the least.
“There are times that I get really frustrated because I will lose a lot of money or people won’t show up for a show, and I’m like, ‘I can’t keep doing this!’” Aronin says. “But then I have a sold-out show I’m hosting in front of two hundred people, and I just get sucked right back in.”